President Clinton hopes to redeem his often-criticized initiative on race by writing a substantial book on the issue, but the project has become mired in delays and White House disputes.

As a result, administration officials say, it may be impossible for the book and the overall initiative to produce the bold conclusions and proposals the president once promised. And that would greatly diminish Clinton's hopes of leaving a legacy of courageous, practical means of improving racial relations in America, a theme he has emphasized his entire political career.

In the latest sign of the race initiative's difficulties, the top consultant for writing and editing the book recently left, telling associates he was frustrated and unsure of the document's prospects. The chief writer for the book--which was planned to be mostly ghost-written under Clinton's direction--is leaving at month's end, making it unclear who will handle the final edits and rewrites needed before publication.

Already months behind schedule, the latest draft is sitting on the president's desk, awaiting his revisions.

Clinton will have to devote significant chunks of his jam-packed schedule to the effort to complete the project, administration sources say. More daunting, some say, he will have to side either with advisers who want the book to propose bold initiatives for further integrating minority groups into mainstream society, or with those who see such proposals as politically explosive and incapable of solving the intractable problems of racial division.

"My sense is the president remains committed to the project and is struggling to find time to rewrite and to resolve some of the sharp policy disagreements that some people within the administration have with the draft," said Christopher Edley Jr., a Harvard law professor who was Clinton's top consultant on the book project. "But it's impossible if the only time his staff gives him is at 3 a.m."

Edley said he has returned to his academic job, leaving the editing and rewriting task to J. Terry Edmonds. Edmonds, a former Clinton speechwriter, was borrowed from his job at the Social Security Administration in October. But he returns to that job at the end of June, essentially shutting down the office that was established two years ago to oversee the race initiative and help Clinton write the book.

"Chris Edley and I presented the president a second full draft before he went on his vacation," Edmonds said, referring to Clinton's five-day trip to Florida at the end of May. "We're basically waiting to hear back from him. We're basically at his mercy."

One senior adviser, when asked whether the book would be published, drew a deep breath and replied: "I just don't know. I suppose so."

Former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean, now president of Drew University and one of Clinton's seven appointees to an advisory panel for the initiative, said that "this president is uniquely qualified" to produce a substantial book about improving race relations in America. "It will be a lost opportunity if this isn't accomplished," he said.

But Maria Echaveste, one of Clinton's deputy chiefs of staff, predicted the book will come out and be a success. "I think we all know how important race is to the president," she said. "This is his book, it's got to be in his voice, and he's got to put his reality into it." Now that the Yugoslav war is over, she said, "he should have more time to focus on it." She declined to predict a publication date, noting that two deadlines were set earlier "and we missed both of them."

Some consultants who worked on the race initiative say they feel the long delay has further sapped momentum from an endeavor that already had fallen short of the lofty goals Clinton announced when he launched it in June 1997.

White House insiders say one problem is that Clinton has solicited advice from an array of associates--a familiar Clinton pattern--and they differ sharply on whether a forceful book on the volatile issue of race can truly help society and burnish his legacy. A book that seems to place too much blame on whites, for example, could further alienate low- and moderate-income whites who have abandoned the Democratic Party in large numbers in the South, said one senior aide. "He doesn't know what the hell to do," said this aide.

Aides also cited differences on how far to go in calling for schools to be held accountable when large percentages of minority students perform poorly. Then there is the question of how much some of the proposals would costs.

Asked about all of this, Echaveste responded: "The president has a draft of the book that tries to stake out a vision. She added that since the book "is written beyond the usual budget cycle," meaning the authors are not required to show how they would pay for various proposals, "the president has to decide whether he wants to discuss things that perhaps are not in our current budget."

Some officials, however, say the biggest problem is finding the time for the president to do the arduous work of writing and revising a book, even with substantial help from Edmonds and others.

"He cares as deeply about this issue as any other," said Bruce Reed, a top domestic policy adviser to Clinton. "And he'll want to make this his own in every way."

The president's race initiative, ambitious at birth, has had a difficult, often frustrating existence. Clinton launched it two years ago in San Diego with a speech that called for a one-year "great and unprecedented conversation about race" that would help "transform the problem of prejudice into the promise of unity."

He said there would be monthly events to focus attention on the issue, and he would issue a final report, now referred to as the book, in the summer of 1998.

The initiative, however, seemed tentative and halting from the start. It took several months to assemble a staff to oversee the project and to assist the seven advisers. Then, in the first of his public "conversations about race," in Akron, Ohio, Clinton labored to draw out candid, expansive comments from a large panel. Subsequent round tables didn't fare much better. Participants often offered a hodgepodge of personal anecdotes or grievances that did little to steer the conversation toward broad-based conclusions or recommendations.

Many had hoped the president's book would redeem the initiative, laying out bold conclusions and proposals in the president's authoritative voice. Edley expressed some of his hopes in a December 1997 article for The Washington Post. "Perhaps the greatest contribution Clinton and Co. can make," he wrote, "is to find those promising practices around the country that may be instructive to the school superintendent, the union local official, the rabbi and the state legislator who want to build bridges but are not sure how."

"It's disappointing it's taken this long," said Kean. "Obviously as the president's term comes to an end, it's more difficult to accomplish things. . . . But I think the race commission, while not as bold as some of us would have liked, is a start."

CAPTION: Professor Christopher Edley Jr. senses that the president "is struggling to find time to rewrite."

CAPTION: In the first public "conversations about race," in Akron, Ohio, in December, President Clinton labored to draw out candid comments from a large panel. Subsequent round tables didn't fare much better.