The long and twisted search for a chairman of the Republican National Committee ended yesterday when the White House announced, to no one's surprise, that Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter was President Bush's choice for the job.

A veteran of government service, Yeutter will assume the top job in the Republican Party despite little direct campaign experience, other than the role of Midwest coordinator for President Richard M. Nixon in 1972 and considerable stumping in behalf of GOP candidates in recent years.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater defended Yeutter's political credentials in a low-key announcement after a search in which, one Republican said yesterday, "No stone was left unturned."

"Well, he does have political experience," Fitzwater said, "in terms of working with President Reagan in the off-year campaign, mostly in traveling around the country, making speeches, meeting with political leaders and he did the same thing for President Bush as a surrogate in 1988."

Fitzwater predicted that Yeutter, 60, would be "a very strong speaker and strong debater who will be taking on the opposition party all over the country." But Yeutter refused to respond to questions yesterday.

Yeutter's new job will become official later this month when the RNC meets in Washington for its annual winter meeting. He will succeed Lee Atwater, who is battling an inoperable brain tumor. Atwater will be designated general chairman of the party.

Yeutter's first order of business may include getting to know many of the people who are being asked to elect him. "I think people know him but not in a political context," said Iowa Republican chairman Steve Roberts.

One state chairman from a major state, asked about the selection, said, "I don't know him." But Van Poole, Florida's Republican chairman, said Yeutter was "no stranger to us," adding that his stature as a Cabinet officer would offset his lack of nuts-and-bolts political experience.

"I think he will want to do a call around and connect with all of us and let us know he is interested in what we say," said Jennifer Dunn, Washington state party chairman, who said that while she does not know Yeutter, he has been given high marks by people she trusts.

Yeutter, U.S. special trade representative in the Reagan administration and former president of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange who also worked in the Agriculture Department in the 1970s, became the fallback candidate after William J. Bennett, Bush's former drug policy coordinator and former education secretary, unexpectedly pulled out of the job. Bennett cited potential conflicts of interest and the need to make more money.

Bennett's reversal, which came only weeks after he had been tapped by Bush and White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, set off an embarrassing search process, in which a number of candidates declined interest in the job until it was offered to Yeutter Thursday.

The new party chairman will operate not only in Sununu's shadow but also in the shadow of the president's reelection campaign committee, once it is formed. Republicans predicted yesterday that Yeutter likely will be counted on to help raise money for the party and to be a visible proponent for Bush and his policies.

Poole said one of Yeutter's main jobs will be to "stand toe to toe with {Democratic National Committee Chairman} Ron Brown."

But Yeutter also will have to confront a fragmented and fractious party in which conservatives are vocally disenchanted with Bush's policies. Fitzwater was asked about Yeutter's conservative credentials yesterday and said, "He's a President Bush conservative."

One official who has worked closely with Yeutter said, "He's conservative but not rabid. He's very pragmatic."

Paul Weyrich, a conservative who heads the Free Congress Foundation, put it somewhat less charitably, calling Yeutter "a conservative in a non-threatening way."

"While nobody is going to bolt because he's selected, he doesn't bring anybody {to the party}," Weyrich said. "It is an extremely cautious choice of someone who isn't going to make waves."

Jim Lake, a Republican party operative and former deputy to Yeutter in the Agriculture Department during the 1970s, called the new chairman "a healer" who would help bring together the warring factions of the party.

Yeutter has spent most of the past two decades in government service, either at the Agriculture Department or the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. He is described by those who know him as a man of "unbridled energy" with an ebullient, back-slapping style.

Pointing to his background in the trade talks, one Republican operative joked yesterday, "He's got good negotiating skills. He's going to need that trait."