At first glance, Rep. Richard Cheney might seem an unlikely candidate to run the Pentagon, but his selection by President Bush won early rave reviews in Congress.

In picking the five-term Republican from Wyoming, Bush moved quickly on Friday to fill the void left by the Senate's rejection of John Tower less than 24 hours earlier.And while the announcement caught most political leaders by surprise, the Cheney choice at once fulfilled two objectives Bush advisers had cited as critical: someone quickly available and someone quickly confirmable.

To allow the politically divisive Tower defeat to fester over the weekend - and to be churned over on Sunday television talk shows and in newspaper columns - would have not been helpful to the president.

So far, the move-quick strategy seems to be working. Senate leaders announced immediately that they would hold confirmation hearings in the coming week.

"Congressman Dick Cheney is well-known and highly respected by the members of the Senate," the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and the panel's ranking Republican, John Warner of Virginia, said in a joint statement.

Although Cheney, 48, lacks direct defense experience, he is a member of the House Intelligence Committee and was senior Republican on the 15-member special panel that investigated the Iran-Contra affair.

Equally important, he served as President Ford's chief of staff.

In selecting Cheney, whom Bush praised as a "widely respected man of principle," the president repeated what he had done in filling many other Cabinet slots - he reached back and picked someone who had served in a previous Republican administration and with whom he had enjoyed a close working relationship.

Cheney did not get wind of what was in store until Thursday - as the Senate was at work rejecting Tower - when he got telephone calls from chief of staff John Sununu and national security adviser Brent Scowcroft.

Bush himself didn't contact the candidate until just hours before the official announcement.

The president's choice makes sense, said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst for the Conservative American Enterprise Institute.

"You wouldn't have thought of him initially because he's not a defense specialist. But in terms of respect in Congress, he's near the top of everyone's list.

"If Dick Cheney can't make it through the confirmation process, no one can," Ornstein said. "Bush had to find someone who could sail through, and it was a wise choice."

Bush himself called Cheney "a thoughtful man, a quiet man, a strong man" who "approaches public policy with vigor, determination and diligence."

And, judging from early reaction, most members of the Senate appear to agree. Cheney has few detractors.

"I have the greatest respect for his broad range of experience and knowledge," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who had been one of Tower's strongest supporters. "I look favorably on this nomination and hope that he will be confirmed expeditiously."

"An excellent choice," said Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia, one of the last Democrats to announce opposition to Tower. "Unless there is a complete void in that area (defense), the confirmation should move rapidly."

Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine praised Cheney as a man who "served with distinction" in the House and promised "prompt consideration by the Senate Armed Services Committee and the full Senate."

For his part, Cheney said he had "extensive views on defense policy" and said he was "eager to get to work."

White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said there was a consensus in the White House that the clock was ticking after the Tower defeat. Bush was being "encouraged by everyone to do it in a hurry," Fitzwater said.

Bush himself said if he had made a mistake in handling the Tower nomination, it was the long delay in sending it to the Senate.

"So when it became clear (Thursday) that the votes weren't there . . . I began to think and talk to my top advisers here, get opinions from them," said Bush.

And when he finally talked to Cheney at 1 p.m. on Friday, the president recalled, "I said I want to make a decision fast on this, because I know him well and have known him over the years well. And so . . . that's about the way it evolved."