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Profiles of Clinton's first-round picks // WILLIAM COHEN

The Republican chosen by President Clinton to run the Pentagon is a man of many talents _ senator, lawyer, poet, author. Then there is the one Clinton hopes William Cohen will emphasize: bridge-builder.

Cohen, equally at ease going against his own party as criticizing Clinton administration policy, carries two decades of experience in national security issues into his designated assignment as defense secretary.

The son of a baker from Bangor, Maine, Cohen, 56, maneuvers comfortably in the top reaches of government. While he doesn't mind straying from party orthodoxy, he's also known for easing differences among the parties. It is a skill likely to ensure a smooth Senate confirmation.

Within hours of the news of Cohen's selection Thursday to replace retiring Defense Secretary William Perry, lawmakers of such diverse views as Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., sang Cohen's praises.

"He not only was one of the most respected and hard-working members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he was one of the most popular as well," said Arnold Punaro, the committee's chief Democratic staffer.

A high school basketball star, Cohen earned a law degree at Boston University, served on the Bangor City Council and then mayor of Bangor in the early 1970s.

Cohen did not serve in the military, something unusual for a defense secretary. But he devoted much of his 20 years in the Senate to working on defense issues, from the reorganization of the Pentagon to the modernization of the Navy. He has written nine books, including one with former Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell on the Iran-Contra affair.

"My entire congressional career has been devoted to pursuing a national security policy that is without partisanship," Cohen said at the White House Thursday.

From his vote in 1974 to impeach President Nixon to his role as one of the leading abortion-rights Republicans, Cohen has bucked convention within his own party. He annoyed colleagues last year by being the only Senate Republican to vote against his party's original budget bill.

Cohen has also sharply criticized Clinton's defense policies on occasion. He said Clinton's motives were political in delaying any announcement on the extended troop deployment to Bosnia until after the election. He questioned the utility of the limited airstrike launched in September against Iraqi targets. When the administration showed reluctance to consult Congress on troop deployments, Cohen scolded top officials.

"You need to come to Congress, whether you believe it is constitutionally required or not," Cohen told Perry at one hearing. "Politically, it is required."

Picking Cohen clearly gives Clinton some political protection should the administration seek to trim the size of the military.

"From the president's perspective, having a Republican to go and sell that to Congress is much preferable to sending a Democrat," said Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington-based defense think tank. "But the president could be playing with fire," Krepinevich said, noting that Cohen may pick fights within the administration.

Clinton said he's not worried about that prospect.

"I think a man with a creative, independent, inquiring mind is just what is needed for this team," Clinton said. "Sen. Cohen and I have talked about that a lot."