One of the defense lawyers in the burgeoning Pentagon contract-fraud investigation suggests, not entirely in jest, that this could become the most politically popular scandal in years.

"This is the best thing that's happened to both the Republicans and Democrats in six months, because for the Republicans it gets everybody's mind off (Attorney General) Ed Meese and for the Democrats it gets everybody's mind off (House Speaker) Jim Wright," said this lawyer, who was not interested in having his or his client's name further publicized.

"So what you have is a natural tendency on the part of both parties to try to pump it up. You've got a Republican, (Iowa Sen. Charles) Grassley, who's pumping it up, and you've got the Democrats too," including Sens. David Pryor of Arkansas and Sam Nunn of Georgia, and Rep. Les Aspin of Wisconsin, the lawyer added. All four have joined the public outcry over the affair.

"It's the one thing everybody can join in on because it gets reporters off their leadership," the lawyer said. "It's terrific, a perfect opportunity."

This experienced attorney is among a dozen Washington lawyers already hired by contractors, consultants and Pentagon officials who are named in government search warrants or grand jury subpoenas.

He was giving his admittedly self-interested view of how government investigators had received such voluminous and favorable publicity for their side of the case through leaks, speeches and news conferences even before bringing any charges or making any arrests.

Meese, who 365 days out of most years solemnly refuses to discuss ongoing investigations in public, even held a news conference to outline the scope of the investigation and rebut Grassley's complaints that the Justice Department had moved too slowly.

Since the government's coordinated searches on June 14, the Pentagon story has muscled two high-profile investigations off the nation's front pages: the special prosecutor's imminent report on whether Meese used his office to benefit himself and friends and a House ethics investigation of Democratic Speaker Jim Wright's finances and official actions.

The well-known names Meese and Wright have been replaced by those of Pentagon bureaucrats, private consultants and contractors who are hardly household words - Berlin, Galvin, Gunn, Lackner, Paisley, Parkin and others.

Even the congressmen whose names have been pulled in by Justice Department or investigative leakers as potentially of interest to investigators are not the best known on Capitol Hill - Democrats William Chappell Jr. of Florida; Roy Dyson of Maryland; Thomas J. Downey and Samuel S. Stratton, both of New York; and Republican Andy Ireland of Florida.

Aides to those five point out that even the leakers don't say they're under investigation at this time. Federal prosecutor Henry Hudson publicly says no one on the Hill is now a target.

This is as close as a Washington scandal comes to catnip for politicians. As Texas GOP chairman George Strake told the Dallas Times Herald, "Every morning when I wake up, I run out to get the paper and see what the scandal of the day is, whether it's on them or us."

The defense lawyer also offered some cautionary words for those tempted to translate leaks and FBI search warrant affidavits into automatic convictions.

"It's a specific federal crime if you trade inside information on Wall Street, but there is a sensitive information flow between the Pentagon and its contractors that is not only legal but even encouraged. Only in certain circumstances is that illegal," he said.

Based on his experience, this lawyer said, "The people hemorrhaging information now are the ones who know the least. The ones who know the most don't talk at this stage."