President Bush has chosen Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter to become the new chairman of the Republican Party, administration sources said Friday.

Bush, speaking to reporters as he left the White House for Camp David, dodged the question of Yeutter's appointment but said, "If Clayton Yeutter were asked to be chairman, he would be a superb chairman."The formal announcement of the appointment is expected soon, administration sources said.

Yeutter, speaking to reporters earlier at the Agriculture Department, refused comment.

"I don't want to make any comment on anything at this stage," Yeutter said in an interview. But sources confirmed that he had been offered the job.

He would replace Lee Atwater, a close personal friend of Bush who was named to the political post in 1989. Atwater has been battling cancer.

The White House has been searching for a new choice to head the Republican Party after being publicly humiliated when former drug czar William Bennett accepted the post and then abruptly withdrew.

Bush had personally appealed to Yeutter to become a member of his Cabinet, convincing the U.S. trade representative for former President Ronald Reagan to remain in government.

In addition to serving as special trade envoy, Yeutter's resume includes stints as president of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and as an Agriculture Department official during the Nixon and Ford adminstrations.

There is little in his background, however, that gives him the traditional background and preparation for the rough and tumble world of politics.

Party regulars had been urging Bush to select a veteran of the political wars who could help enhance Republican prospects around the country.

Yeutter was also an honors student who earned a law degree and a doctorate in agriculture economics at the University of Nebraska.

Since taking over the department, Yeutter has held his own or won victories in administration debates over food safety and pesticide regulation.

Bush has also put the current international trade talks, and specifically the U.S. push to eliminate trade-distorting farm subsidies, near the top of his agenda.

Strong farm prices of the past two years have been buried under bumper harvests this summer, with commodity groups and rural lawmakers trying to blame the drop on Yeutter.

The loudest complaints, however, have come from lawmakers who say Yeutter kept his distance while Congress worked out a farm-and-budget package that cuts agriculture subsidies by 25 percent over the next five years.