Washington is engaged in a major manhunt, stalking Clarence Thomas for clues about the mind and heart of the man George Bush chose to succeed Justice Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court.

Beginning with the fact that he is a black conservative, he is a bundle of contradictions, or, as one of several blacks who does not wish to be identified put it, "a walking identity crisis." He doesn't believe in affirmative action, although he believes "there is nothing you can do to get past a black skin," and wouldn't be where he is today without race-conscious remedies. He's cool toward integration and is married to a white woman, his second wife. He once studied for the Catholic priesthood but now attends Episcopal services.

Blacks are divided. Is this 43-year-old enigma the "wrong Negro" of Marshall's baleful warning against using the quota system in the high court? Or is he an incomparably inspirational figure, whose rise from sharecropper's shack to the federal bench justifies beyond argument his stern contention that individual merit is all that counts?

Some notable blacks, such as William T. Coleman Jr. and Marian Wright Edelman, have registered no views. Some call him a "quisling," others, a modern-day Booker T. Washington, with emphasis on "separate" -- which, he insists, can be "equal."

But there is no mystery about the politics of the nomination. Eddie N. Williams, president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank, calls it "a curve ball -- you don't know whether to swing at it or let it cruise over the plate."

Bush is taking bows for political deftness, along with a few catcalls about cynicism. He reminds many of the old caution, "Be careful what you pray for, you might get it." Liberals and blacks who were praying for a black successor to Marshall forgot to add, "But not, please, dear God, a black Robert Bork."

But who is going to take him on? There is no black member of the Senate Judiciary Committee to challenge Thomas's credentials as a survivor of poverty and racism, who endured rejection, penury and bigotry to enter Holy Cross College and Yale Law School. At most, his questioners can try to point out that no matter how good his grades were, he would not have been admitted without the class actions he disapproves of. He merited admission, of course, and he wants a world where merit is the only standard, but in the world before Brown v. Board of Education -- a decision he thinks was wrongly reasoned -- those walls would not have come tumbling down.

His celebration of individual worth is braided into the American psyche. It is a specific against both sloth and self-pity. And his espousal of education as a way out could serve as a spur to his brothers and sisters. He prefers to think he did it by himself -- with the help of his illiterate, implacable grandfather and the white nuns who taught him in school.

Once a follower of Malcolm X, and an agitator for the poor while at Holy Cross, he learned to disapprove of all government programs.

Can liberals oppose him on abortion? Not likely. The groups can testify against him, but what senator is going to press him to the wall? No, that was decided a year ago, when David H. Souter was before the Judiciary Committee for confirmation and slyly took the Fifth on the subject, claiming it would be "inappropriate" to comment on an issue facing the court.

Obviously, it would be dicey to harass Thomas in the light of that history. If it happened, says Eddie Williams, "every black in America would say you let a white man get away with it but not a black."

Already, Bush is receiving a totally undeserved dividend from the appointment. Thomas's shepherd at the hearings will be Sen. John C. Danforth (Mo.), a Republican of rectitude and a champion of civil rights. He was Thomas's mentor in politics and may have converted him to Republicanism.

Danforth recently rounded up fellow moderates to back a compromise bill on civil rights. Although he is professionally forbearing -- he is an Episcopal minister -- he began to lose his temper with the sabotage efforts of White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu and counsel C. Boyden Gray. The pair had wrecked negotiations between business and civil rights leaders and were at it again. Danforth got mad when the White House accused him of welshing on a deal.

But Danforth the critic of White House civil rights policy is now transformed into the president's ally in an important fight. The focus is off the civil rights bill and on a nominee who probably opposes its contents.