President Bush has reason to appreciate the legal credentials of Washington lawyer Theodore B. Olson. If it weren't for Olson, who successfully argued Bush's case before the Supreme Court during last year's disputed election, Bush might not be where he is today.

So it surprised no one that Bush nominated Olson yesterday to be solicitor general, the Justice Department official who represents the federal government before the Supreme Court.

Democratic and Republican legal analysts agreed that Olson, a major player in conservative legal circles and a veteran of ideological battles inside and outside the court, would probably have been on Bush's short list even if his services had not been necessary in the election struggle.

"You couldn't find many people as well matched for the job," said Terry Eastland, who served with Olson at the Justice Department during the Reagan administration. "Thinking about the justices and the kinds of arguments that appeal to them -- all of that is very familiar work for Ted Olson."

Bush v. Gore was hardly the first time that Olson, a partner in the Washington office of Los Angeles-based Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, carried the conservative banner in high-profile litigation.

Olson represented a white student, Cheryl Hopwood, who argued that affirmative action in admissions at the University of Texas was a violation of the Constitution. In 1996, a federal appeals court agreed with Olson and Hopwood that the university's policy was unconstitutional.

"The Hopwood decision emphasizes that the fundamental law of our nation, the Constitution, forbids racial discrimination," Olson wrote at the time. "Our institutions of higher education must follow that fundamental law."

Later that same year, before the Supreme Court, Olson defended the Virginia Military Institute's policy of admitting only male cadets. In that case, the court rejected Olson's argument, saying that VMI was required by the Constitution to admit women as well.

Olson was legal counsel to President Ronald Reagan during independent counsel Lawrence Walsh's investigation of the Iran-contra affair. And he represented Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of selling government secrets to Israel, in his failed bid for a reduction of his life sentence.

During his stint in the Reagan administration's Justice Department, Olson himself was the subject of an independent counsel investigation into charges that he had misled a congressional committee. The independent counsel, Alexia Morrison, eventually decided not to indict Olson, but not before Olson had taken his challenge to the constitutionality of the independent counsel law all the way to the Supreme Court. He lost the case of Morrison v. Olson in a 7 to 1 decision.

A close friend of former Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, Olson also plunged into the political drama surrounding President Bill Clinton's legal troubles. He helped prepare Paula Jones's lawyers for their oral argument before the Supreme Court. His sharply worded articles appeared, often under a pseudonym, in the pages of the fiercely anti-Clinton American Spectator magazine, on whose board of directors Olson serves.

A recent piece by Olson in the Spectator faulted then-Attorney General Janet Reno for failing to insist on a Justice Department investigation of former deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster's "mysterious death" in 1993, and for generally running a department "contaminated" by pro-Clinton bias.

Olson and his wife, Barbara -- a former attorney for congressional committees that investigated the Clinton White House, a frequent television talk show guest and author of a book about Hillary Rodham Clinton titled "Hell to Pay" -- were married in a 1996 ceremony attended by a who's who of conservative Washington, including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The couple are at the hub of a social network of conservative Washington lawyers and policy activists.

Olson's appointment deepens the conservative hue of a Justice Department already led by a staunch conservative, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft. As solicitor general, however, Olson would not necessarily be positioned to give his own views free rein.

The vast majority of cases that the office handles, analysts say, involve such matters as immigration or admiralty law, in which the federal government's position does not vary much from one administration to the next.

Also, the solicitor general's duty has traditionally been interpreted to mean that he must defend any congressional enactment for which a reasonable good-faith argument can be made.

Walter Dellinger, who served as acting solicitor general under Clinton, said that when Olson was in charge of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel in the early 1980s, he issued several legal opinions that conflicted with his policy preferences.

"If Ted runs the SG's office the way he ran OLC, he will give deference to views other than his own in making his final decision," Dellinger said.

The solicitor general has more latitude in deciding how to intervene in cases that may involve important constitutional or legal questions but not existing federal legislation.

An example would be the role of race in university admissions, an issue that is being hashed out in the lower courts, due in large part to Olson's victory in the Hopwood case.

The high court has declined to revisit the matter since the 1978 Bakke case, when a divided court permitted universities to consider racial diversity as a goal of admissions policy. But it may have to take it up soon, if the lower courts cannot agree on a consistent rule.

In that case, Olson could be expected to weigh in strongly for the view that racial preferences are unconstitutional.

Lawyer Theodore B. Olson represented the Bush campaign before the Supreme Court in December.