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"The Vulcan' wants to lead Britain

Until a week ago, almost no one outside Wales, Westminster and Wokingham had heard of John Redwood. If he has achieved nothing else this week, he has made himself a household name in Britain.

Or perhaps a household nickname. For, presented with this pretender to Prime Minister John Major's crown, the nation has seized upon a suggestion made in a Times of London political sketch a couple of years ago, that the aloof and somewhat awkward Redwood, Secretary of State for Wales, was in fact a creature from the planet Vulcan.

Now everyone knows him as "Mr. Spock" or "The Vulcan" _ strong on logic but with a serious humor deficiency.

The nearest he has come to sounding human was at the first news conference of his campaign, when he was asked if he was upset by the Star Trek moniker.

"I can now see the joke, although as you know it took me quite a long time," he replied. "The logic cells have finally worked it out. I now realize it was quite funny all along."

On the other hand, no one can deny that he has brains and nerve. When Major threw down the gauntlet to his party's mutinous right-wingers, daring them to try to remove him, it was widely assumed that the reply would come from a no-hoper with no position to lose _ a man such as the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont.

No one anticipated a member of Major's own Cabinet resigning and running _ and even if they had, they would have expected it to be Employment Secretary Michael Portillo, usually seen as the person who picked up the torch dropped when Margaret Thatcher fell from power.

By grabbing this opportunity, Redwood has put himself on an almost equal footing with Portillo. These two _ both young, ambitious and clever _ must now jostle each other for leadership of the right.

Some of Redwood's more wildly optimistic supporters think he could be prime minister by mid-July. This is unlikely, though he may do enough damage to Major to clear the way for someone else.

A Redwood premiership would be a startling victory for ideology over the old Conservative virtues of pragmatism and compromise. Chancellor Kenneth Clarke has warned that the Redwood agenda could keep the Conservatives out of power "for a thousand years."

Redwood vows that he would say an outright "no" to Britain joining a European single currency, instead of the evasive "maybe" that Europe has been hearing from Major for three years. He has also promised immediate tax cuts.

Redwood says he'll set a new moral tone in a party that has been badly hit by a string of scandals involving sex or money. He takes the stern view that a minister who cheats on his wife might be un-trustworthy in other ways.

At a different level, Redwood is one of the minority of MPs who believes in bringing back hanging.

In other respects, Redwood has tried to appeal to the political center by promising to save small hospitals, provide a place in hostels for everyone who is homeless and spare the royal yacht from defense budget cuts.

His background is similar to Thatcher's. Born in 1951 to an accounts clerk and a shop manager, he was a brilliant scholar, winning his class prize every year, gaining honors at Oxford University, and finally, at the age of only 21, becoming a Fellow of All Souls College.

His doctoral thesis was turned into a book, Reason, Ridicule and Religion: The Age of Enlightenment in England, 1660-1750.

Even early in his career, telling aspects about his personality emerged. His nickname at Oxford was "Deadwood." Michael Howard, a historian, remembered Redwood as "a cold young man, very remote and ambitious."

At Oxford, Redwood met his wife, Gail, also a political activist, with whom he has had one son and a daughter.

In 1974, Redwood moved to London's financial center, and later joined N.M. Rothschild as an investment analyst.

In 1983-85, he ran Thatcher's policy unit at 10 Downing Street, becoming known as an evangelist of "popular capitalism" who believed in maximizing the number of people who owned property or stocks.

Elected MP for the commuter-belt market town of Wokingham in 1987, he became a junior minister only two years later and entered the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Wales when Norman Lamont was fired in May 1993.

Even if his bold move doesn't take him to straight to Downing Street, it will certainly establish him as big player to watch on the Conservative Right.

_ Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.