It was late Monday afternoon and Edith H. Jones, the federal appeals court judge from Texas who had spent the night stashed in an administration "safe house," was hiding out once again in a second-floor office in the White House. Six hours earlier she had met with President Bush and now was waiting to find out if she had won the prize of a lifetime: a nomination to the Supreme Court.

Down the hall, David H. Souter, an appeals court judge from New Hampshire, was in another office, waiting for the same momentous decision that was being thrashed out in the family quarters on the other side of the White House complex by Bush and four top aides.

In the end, according to interviews with the participants in that debate or their top aides, the choice of Souter came down, as much as anything, to political timing, not qualification. Souter was judged the more scholarly and "brilliant" of two good judges, but more important, the candidate who would be less controversial in Senate confirmation hearings.

"In the political sense," said one White House senior official, "she would have generated more enthusiasm -- and more controversy." Said another senior official, "She has dealt extensively with federal issues, and he has not. That might sound like a disadvantage, but when you are not looking for a fight, it is an advantage."

Souter and Jones reached the finals of a process that began 18 months ago when Bush inherited what White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray called the "files and institutional memory" of the Reagan White House on potential high court nominees. A list of more than 50 names on Inauguration Day was winnowed to 18 names by the time Justice William J. Brennan Jr. announced his resignation last Friday, according to White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu.

In the processs, Gray, Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and their aides looked closely at the records of those on the list, including the interviews some potential nominees, like Souter, had had before other judicial appointments. Several officials said no candidate was asked about abortion or any other specific issue. Several, including Souter, told the administration not to ask because such questions amounted to "litmus tests" and were considered improper.

"They didn't want to be asked, we didn't want to ask, and we really didn't have to," one official noted. "Given the situation, what we wanted was a judicial conservative whose philosophy would suggest the answer to those questions. Since most of the candidates had gone through the process for appointment or elevation, we thought we knew the answers, or as close as you can get."

Within 24 hours of Brennan's resignation, the list was down to eight -- four front-runners and four long shots. Besides Souter and Jones, the short list included two District of Columbia appeals court judges -- Laurence H. Silberman, 55, who had been appointed by President Reagan to the bench in 1985 and Clarence Thomas, 42, the conservative black former Reagan official appointed to the same court by Bush earlier this year.

According to two senior officials, both Gray and Thornburgh argued successfully to Bush that Thomas should be allowed, as one official put it, "to settle in, to get some experience. He will be around for a long time." Silberman, the officials said, was taken off the list by Bush himself without citing a reason, leaving the two finalists.

By Sunday morning, the easy part of the process was over. Gray was dispatched to invite the two candidates Bush had not met -- Souter and Jones -- to Washington.

To ensure the absolute secrecy of the process, the administration set up what Gray called "safe houses" where the two would spend Sunday night and "hand-holders" who would silently get them in and out of the White House. Souter was to spend Sunday night at the home of Michael Luttig, the acting assistant attorney general in charge of the Office of Legal Counsel. Jones would spent the night at the home of John P. Schmitz, Gray's deputy.

When Gray called Souter's farm in New Hampshire, his elderly mother answered the phone and had to be convinced the call was not a prank, according to Sen. Warren B. Rudman, the New Hampshire Republican who has acted as Souter's patron and strongest advocate. Rudman said Souter was reached at his appeals court office in Boston after his mother relented and gave Gray the number.

Sununu, who had appointed Souter to the New Hampshire Supreme Court when he was governor, said he was "not shy" in endorsing Souter but that Rudman, not he, was Souter's patron and promoter. A senior official said there was concern that Souter's "biggest single negative" might be the perception that "he was associated with" Sununu.

Rudman said when he spoke with Souter Sunday, "David was in a bit of a tizzy." He told the judge to meet him in Manchester, where Rudman would put him on a plane to Washington.

At the same time, Jones, contacted earlier that day by Gray, was also on her way to Washington. After she had arrived at the Schmitz house, Gray went over for what he calls the "due diligence" interview -- questions on potentially explosive subjects such as whether she ever used drugs or anything that, if discovered, would prove embarrassing. Gray would later conduct the same interview with Souter.

On Monday morning, Jones was snuck into a back entrance of the White House by Schmitz to meet with Thornburgh, who had known or talked to all the other candidates, officials said, except her. Then she was escorted to the family quarters where she met Bush in his private office for a half-hour.

When the interview was complete, Jones had to be, as one official put it, "stashed somewhere" until her fate was decided. She was turned over to Bonnie Newman, the White House director of administration, who gave her a tour, lunch and eventually an office for the wait.

Souter, meanwhile, was meeting with Thornburgh, Gray and others after being brought into the Justice Department by Murray G. Dickman, special assistant to Thornburgh. The night before Dickman had picked Souter up at the airport and taken him to Luttig's house, where they had dinner. At the end of the dinner, Luttig broke out the only bottle of wine in the house -- Cabernet Savignon which sported the inscription, "Best Wishes, Chief Justice Burger." The wine was a souvenir of Luttig's days as a Burger clerk.

At 1:30 Monday afternoon, according to White House officials, Souter was escorted into Bush's office and the two spent 45 minutes alone together. The staff had given the president a list of questions he might ask, but he scratched several off, saying they were inappropriate.

Afterward, officials said Bush found Souter "a humble man, quiet, studious. You get the sense of a guy who wants to be a Supreme Court justice and wants to devote his life to it." The staff itself found Souter "dazed" by the previous 24 hours.

When the interviews were over, Souter, too, was stashed away for the wait. Bush then spent about an hour with Vice President Quayle, Sununu, Gray and Thornburgh in what Sununu called a "freewheeling discussion . . . everyone played devil's advocate."

Gray said the decision between the two was "very, very close. I think in the president's mind, in Thornburgh's and my mind, it almost didn't matter because both were so good. It was a good choice, not a bad choice."

Sununu was said by two senior officials to have argued for Jones, making the case that as a woman, it would be more difficult to "hang the abortion issue around her neck." Quayle, too, was said to prefer Jones but endorsed both.

Asked what tipped the balance, Gray said, "I think there was some sense that this scholarly approach he brings to bear in the future might get lost in the political shuffle. The next time around, are you going to be able to have the luxury of chosing this caliber of candidate for whom there is no obvious political gain?"

After that session, Bush spent an hour alone writing what one aide described as a brief to himself listing pros and cons. He would emerge with Souter as his choice, a decision he told the New Hampshire jurist in his private office off the Oval Office. Gray, meanwhile, was given the task of telling Jones that this time she would be disappointed and putting her on a plane back to Texas.

Staff writers Michael Isikoff, David S. Broder and Dan Balz contributed to this report.