In the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, where presidents are better known for their court appearances than their labor accomplishments, R.V. Durham seems an unlikely candidate to head the union.

A soft-spoken southerner, Durham has worked his way up the ladder of power, attending quietly to labor issues and keeping his reputation for honesty intact, even when many other national leaders three years ago were accused by the Justice Department of being corrupt.

The 59-year-old Durham has emerged as the man to beat in next year's government-supervised election for control of the 1.6 million-member union.

Twenty months after the union settled a massive federal racketeering suit by agreeing to hold its first direct, secret ballot elections, the battle for control of the Teamsters has evolved into a three-way political fight among Durham, reform candidate Ron Carey and old-guard leader Walter Shea.

Durham became front-runner almost overnight, when Teamsters President William J. McCarthy announced in October he would not seek reelection. A majority of the union's 21-member board immediately supported Durham, one of the union's most junior vice presidents. Durham heads a slate that includes longtime Secretary Treasurer Weldon Mathis.

Colleagues view Durham as a team player, who still refers to McCarthy as the "boss" and makes any political moves cautiously, including criticism of the union.

The elections will be held in two stages under government supervision, designed to rid the union of organized crime elements the Justice Department claimed controlled the union at the national level.

The more than 600 local unions will elect delegates to next June's convention in Orlando, Fla. Those delegates will nominate candidates for national offices, who will be elected next December.

Durham is often described as a "gentleman," who is "courteous and honest." He joined the union as a 19-year-old long-distance truck driver, but associates say he hardly fits the stereotype. He tends to blush when someone swears in mixed company. Even Shea speaks kindly of Durham. "R.V.'s a very fine person," says Shea. "He's going to be a worthy opponent."

Durham's rise to national power within the union began 17 years ago when then-President Frank Fitzsimmons asked him to come to Washington to start the union's safety and health department. Durham refused because Fitzsimmons wanted him to give up his political power base as director of North Carolina's Joint Council of Teamsters and president of Local 391 in Kernersville.

Eventually Durham agreed to come to Washington three days a week, but stayed president of the local, which he has built into the second largest in the union's Eastern Conference with 8,500 members.

"When I came up here it was with the idea that I would be here no more than three years," Durham said in an interview. But he is still here, commuting three days a week from his home in Winston-Salem. He has handled a variety of jobs: safety director, national freight director, international trustee and international vice president.

But that experience, which Durham sees as his strength, is what his opponents hope will be his weakness.

"He's part of the problem," said rival Carey, the president of a 7,000-member local in New York City. With Durham's selection, said Carey, "it's business as usual. It's 'the membership be damned.' " Ken Paff, who heads Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the reform group that supports Carey, calls Durham's ticket "the embodiment of the old guard."

Durham's critics, however, do not challenge his honesty and integrity, just the company he keeps. "If that's the only thing they can throw at me, it's not going to wash," said Durham, pointing out that he was never a target of the corruption charges. He said anyone on his slate will have to support secret-ballot election reforms designed to eliminate corruption.

Durham criticizes reformer Carey as a negative candidate and said the reform group that backs him is out of touch with the membership.

Durham said Shea, who recently was fired as executive assistant to McCarthy after announcing plans to seek the union presidency, represents the element within the union that "wants to continue the past."

Durham concedes the union has problems. "If we're to get this cloud off our back we have to recognize that, yes, we have problems. We do have problems," he said. "There's no way to do what I want to do without cleaning up these problems."

Durham said the independent, three-member review board created to examine charges of corruption in the union should become permanent. The board, created as part of the settlement with the Justice Department, can be a vehicle to help clean up the union. "It's something that's going to be needed for many, many years, probably in perpetuity."

Durham said his critics prefer to talk about the past, while he wants to talk about the future and the need to recruit members and set up a mechanism to assure the union stays clean.

"Where I'd like to take this union is to build on the strength of the locals in a national-local partnership," said Durham. "Many locals feel the only thing they've been getting from the international is a bad image."