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WHITE HOUSE SAYS NUNN TURNED DOWN DEFENSE JOB

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The White House asked Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., last week if he would take the job of defense secretary, but he refused, administration officials said Wednesday.

While Bobby Ray Inman, who was nominated for the post by the president a month ago, formally withdrew his nomination Tuesday, White House officials said they were given an inkling of his decision last week.The offer to Nunn, President Clinton's chief nemesis on military issues, reveals how urgent the White House feels it is to find a new Defense secretary of unquestioned stature with the Pentagon and Congress.

Nunn, a conservative Democrat who heads the Armed Services Committee, led the successful effort to roll back Clinton's pledge to allow homosexuals in the military in one of the most embarrassing episodes of the administration's early days.

He also has been a leading voice warning that the administration's proposed military budgets may not fully finance the government's new fighting strategy and could ultimately erode the Pentagon's military effectiveness.

All that was apparently set aside by the need to move quickly to shore up the administration's much-criticized foreign policy team.

Nunn considered the offer "in the interest of the nation" but ultimately told the White House he could serve the country better in the Senate, officials in the Pentagon said.

Senate officials also said Nunn was reluctant to give up his independence and become a subordinate to Clinton.

The idea of offering the job to Nunn was strongly supported by Thomas F. McLarty 3rd, the White House chief of staff, and David Gergen, a senior White House adviser, as well as other White House aides, administration officials said Wednesday.

A senior White House official said, "You reach out to Sam Nunn for his expertise, because he has the most knowledge of defense issues of anyone in the party."

An administration official said the White House first contacted Nunn last week, even before receiving the letter from Inman. The official said Vice President Al Gore had been deeply involved in the process but refused to say whether it was Gore or Clinton who extended the offer.

The official refused to say exactly when Nunn rebuffed the offer but indicated that it had been in recent days. "There was more than one contact," the official said, "but the initial contact was made last week."

In a brief telephone interview from Georgia, Nunn said: "I don't want to talk about the Defense thing. I've never been interested."