The long, tortuous--and often torturous--journey for President Clinton's ambassadorial candidates is finally coming to an end. Democrats and Republicans alike say the ambassadorial confirmation window for this presidency will be all but closed when the Senate recesses, possibly next week.

Career foreign service officers will continue to be processed in 2000, since their tours can easily carry over to the next administration. But political appointees, unless they are, as one senior White House official put it, "Trent Lott's brother," can forget it. A recess appointment is just about the only way they're going to get that car and driver.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's business--meaning voting--meeting today should clear decks for the most part. The political appointees still pending in committee include former National Public Radio president and chief executive Delano Lewis for South Africa, retired Adm. Joseph W. Prueher for China, former Democratic National Committee chairman Charles Manatt for the Dominican Republic, and Anthony S. Harrington for Brazil (chocolate Labrador, not black. Please stop calling). Those four are expected to sail through the committee without any problem.

But it's unclear what's going to happen with former Connecticut representative Toby Moffett's bid for Argentina. The nomination hasn't been sent to the Senate because the background checks haven't been completed.

Then there's the nomination of former senator Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) for New Zealand, enmeshed in a tussle over documents relating to a trip she took to Nigeria and alleged misuse of leftover campaign funds. A hearing had been scheduled yesterday but Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) had not received the information he has demanded regarding those matters.

Problem was some of the papers hadn't arrived by yesterday in the White House counsel's office for internal review. The IRS information was in, sources said, but the Justice Department documents hadn't been received. Helms has said he could hold a hearing on the day after the requested documents show up, but a hearing doesn't look likely before Thursday.

All the nominees then face an uncertain future on the Senate floor, where, under the modern constitutional interpretation, any senator can kill a nomination by putting a hold on it.

Meanwhile, Back at the Foreign Service . . .

Speaking of ambassadorships, word is that Edward W. "Skip" Gnehm Jr., ambassador to Kuwait when Saddam Hussein invaded in 1990 and more recently director general of the foreign service, is in line to be ambassador to Australia, probably some time in the early spring. He's to be replaced by Marc Grossman, former ambassador to Turkey and now assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs.

Bradley's Alpha Bet

Former senator Bill Bradley has raised eyebrows around town with his recent choices of great leaders. In response to a softball question about the "most effective" national or international leaders last week at the New Hampshire debate with Vice President Gore, Bradley picked former presidents Jimmy Carter and Woodrow Wilson and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

This sparked a roasting by New Yorker columnist Joe Klein, who said the trio were aloof, priggish and self-righteous, something Klein said Bradley critics say of the candidate. Worse, they were losers.

Then on CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday, Bradley offered his list of greatest presidents, rattling off the usual suspects: "Lincoln, FDR, Washington, Jefferson, Wilson and TR, Harry Truman and James K. Polk."

James K. Polk? Not one often put in the pantheon of greats. But there may be something revealing in the choice, says historian Michael Beschloss. Polk, the 11th president (1845-49), was not considered a "commanding figure," not particularly dramatic or interesting, not exactly a spellbinding orator, but he was a "determined and hugely honest guy and somewhat cautious," Beschloss said.

Also, Polk has had something of a revival in popularity because he was in charge when the country, through the acquisition of California, Oregon and the Southwest from Mexico and the annexation of Texas, was becoming a world power. Then there was a treaty with New Granada (now Colombia) which didn't seem like much at the time, but it became the legal basis behind TR's move to make Panama a separate country and for us to get that canal built.

His presidency is now seen as something of a forerunner of the imperial presidency of this century, Beschloss said. Of course, like Carter, Polk was a one-termer. On the other hand, he was a real Alpha kind of guy.

Reeve Not for Jeffords--Yet

Erik Smulson, press secretary for Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.), says that while Jeffords and Christopher Reeve are good friends and have worked together closely over the years, a Capital Style magazine item we picked up Monday was wrong to say Reeve is going to do TV ads endorsing Jeffords. "At this point he has not publicly endorsed Senator Jeffords and has not taped any campaign commercials," Smulson said.

Capital Style editor Bill Thomas says he stands by the item, noting the "at this point" phrasing.