Abner J. Mikva, the chief judge of the federal appeals court here, is the leading candidate to replace Lloyd N. Cutler as the new White House counsel, administration officials said yesterday.

Mikva, 68, served in the House of Representatives and in the Illinois legislature before being named to the federal bench by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. His selection would offer President Clinton both the stature of a well-respected federal judge and the political acumen that many in the White House believed was missing under Clinton's first counsel, Bernard Nussbaum.

Cutler, a senior partner at the Washington law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, took over from Nussbaum when the New York lawyer resigned last spring amid a storm of protest about his involvement in meetings between White House and Treasury officials regarding a federal investigation of Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan that touched on the Clintons.

But Cutler agreed to serve only for 130 working days, the limit for a special government employee, and has said he plans to leave by the end of September. Cutler declined to say yesterday who his replacement will be but said the White House was "quite close" to making a decision.

Some officials cautioned that although Clinton knows Mikva, he has not met with him to discuss the position and no job has been offered. But they said Mikva, in conversations with Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta and others, has indicated a willingness to leave the court to take the post.

Others who have been mentioned as candidates include Washington lawyers Kenneth Feinberg and Stephen Pollak.

As the congressional Whitewater hearings demonstrated last week, the White House counsel plays a crucial role at the intersection of law and politics, overseeing judicial selection and advising the president on a host of legal matters.

During the Clinton administration, the counsel's office has played a particularly central -- and in some cases, controversial -- role.

It has been involved in such issues as the withdrawn nomination of Lani Guinier to serve as head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, the firing of members of the White House travel office, the contacts with the Treasury Department over Madison and the handling of papers from the office of Deputy Counsel Vincent Foster after his death last year.

Mikva, who had a liberal voting record in Congress, came under attack by the National Rifle Association when he was nominated to the appeals court. The group, which was opposed to Mikva's position on gun control, argued that he was not eligible to serve on the court because as a congressman he had voted to raise the salaries for federal judges.

On the appeals court, Mikva has been a leader of the court's liberal wing. Last year, he ordered the reinstatement of a gay student expelled by the Naval Academy, saying that the armed forces cannot discriminate against people solely because of sexual orientation.

Staff researcher Barbara J. Saffir contributed to this report.