Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) was puzzled a couple of years ago when Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), searching for the right person to take on a particularly onerous chore, decided he would "let Mikey do it." Coverdell, a serious-minded fellow who doesn't pay much attention to television commercials for breakfast cereal, asked who Mikey was. It's you, Lott told him, "you'll try anything."

Rising rapidly in the inner circles of power in the Senate, the 60-year-old Coverdell--a former insurance marketing executive and Peace Corps director--has earned his nickname in a variety of ways, digging into tasks that others push away and turning up his nose at almost nothing.

It is a measure of Coverdell's lack of pretense that he doesn't mind the "Mikey" moniker. He takes it as a compliment, as Lott meant it.

Slight, soft-spoken and almost shy in public appearances, Coverdell doesn't stand out in a crowd--except that, as nearly every article on him has noted, he sounds like comedian Dana Carvey doing his famous and not very flattering imitation of President George Bush. He talks a lot about goals, teamwork and message. He does not speak in catchy sound bites.

Despite his image, or perhaps because of it, Coverdell has become almost indispensable to the Senate GOP leadership and one of the Senate's most influential behind-the-scenes players--a model senatorial workhorse without the usual senatorial ego.

He is currently a junior member of the leadership: secretary to the Senate Republican Conference, representing all GOP senators. He is in line to move up to the chairmanship, which is generally regarded as third-ranking on the leadership ladder, when the current chairman, Connie Mack (R-Fla.), retires at the end of next year. But it is his closeness to Lott and his role as utility infielder for the leadership, especially for difficult and politically unrewarding tasks, that sets him apart from the crowd.

Since coming to the Senate in 1993, Coverdell has spearheaded Republican efforts on education and tax policy, helped lead the push for stronger anti-drug policies and coordinated GOP "working groups" that have been instrumental in developing strategies and political messages in areas ranging from national defense to Social Security.

Earlier this year, he had a hand in drafting the procedures that kept the Senate from running off its rails during President Clinton's impeachment trial and took a leading role in putting together the post-trial legislative agenda that gave the Senate some initial accomplishments on education and other high-profile issues.

An ally and friend of former president Bush for more than 20 years, he has become chief liaison in the Senate for Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the younger Bush's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

His most recent "Mikey" effort was to assure a hearing for former senator Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.), whose nomination as ambassador to New Zealand was bitterly opposed by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), and then pose the key questions about ethical concerns that Helms had raised. No one else wanted to undertake the task, and Coverdell won bipartisan praise for the diplomacy of his questioning.

Born and raised in the Midwest, Coverdell moved to Atlanta after serving in the Army to work in his parents' business. He became active in the GOP when it was beginning its rise in the South. He was elected to the state Senate and became its minority leader. He got to know the elder Bush in the late 1970s, served as his Georgia finance chairman in 1980 and was Peace Corps director from 1989 to 1991.

When Coverdell ran for the Senate in 1992, he set some kind of modern-day record, enduring a primary, primary runoff, general election and general election runoff before finally winning. He says it helped teach him patience and perseverance.

"To begin with, he's a pleasure to be around," Lott said recently about Coverdell. "He's got an indomitable spirit, he's always upbeat, hard working. No task is too daunting for him. He'll just barge in and do it."

More than many conservatives, Coverdell has worked across the aisle with Democrats who share his views on a particular issue, such as Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (N.J.), who is chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. They have worked together on a "small savers" tax-cut bill and on tax breaks for educational expenses.

"He's smart, he does his homework and he doesn't have the kind of hard edges that offend people," Torricelli said.

Capitol Players

Paul Coverdell

Title: U.S. senator (R-Ga.).

Age: 60.

Education: Bachelor's in journalism, University of Missouri.

Family: Married, no children.

Previous jobs: Director, Peace Corps, 1989-91; insurance marketing executive.

Hobbies: Reading, spending time at mountain cabin.

CAPTION: Georgia Republican Paul Coverdell is on the rise in the Senate GOP leadership.