Robert Pitofsky, 63, a prominent antitrust lawyer with a strong background in consumer issues, is likely to be nominated to head the FTC, insiders and industry repre-sentatives say. Currently a law professor at Georgetown University, Mr. Pitofsky was an FTC commissioner from 1978 to 1981, a period of anti-advertising frenzy at the federal regulatory agency. He also was director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection from 1970 to 1973.
"He's got it if he wants it," said an attorney familiar with the agency and how its vacancies are filled. "His is the only name you're hearing now for chairman."
Christine Varney, a Democrat who is currently deputy assistant to President Clinton, is the leading candidate for the second vacancy on the five-member board. Both Democrat Dennis Yao and Republican Deborah Owen departed last month.
A Pitofsky-led FTC would likely mean only a slight toughening in policy at the commission, according to those familiar with Mr. Pitofsky, a Democrat, and the current FTC regime.
Chairman Janet Steiger, who would move to commissioner status when a new chairman is confirmed, is a Republican who has been strongly supported by advertisers as fair and even-handed. But she has been ripped by consumer groups for not being more aggressive against major advertisers.
"Any change would be incremental rather than radical," said one insider.
"I think, based on everything I've heard, that [Mr. Pitofsky] would be an excellent selection," said Hal Shoup, exec VP, American Association of Advertising Agencies. "He's supposed to be a moderate, and I like to see moderates in jobs like these."
"He has been exposed to the realities of what advertising regulation is all about, and that would be better than getting someone who might be an idealistic consumer-oriented regulator .*.*. or an aggressive state regulator whose perspective of advertising would be significantly different."
Mr. Pitofsky declined to comment on increasing speculation his nomination was imminent. "I don't want to say anything," he said. "If there's to be any comment, it won't be from me."
Mr. Pitofsky's nomination would enjoy broad support from the U.S. Senate, which must confirm the White House nominees, as well as from an ad industry that feared the Clinton administration would select an activist.
While Mr. Pitofsky was at the FTC during the never-a-dull-moment regime of former Chairman Michael Pertschuk, he was considered a moderating influence.
"Bob Pitofsky is a selection that would be applauded by the constituencies of the FTC, from the bar to consumerists to business," said Bill MacLeod, Bureau of Consumer Protection director during the Reagan administration.
Former FTC Commissioner Andy Strenio said Mr. Pitofsky was "deservedly well-respected in academia, the private bar and government circles. It would be a very good thing for the FTC and the public."
Before joining the Clinton White House in 1992, Ms. Varney served as a general counsel to the Clinton presidential campaign, and was general counsel to the Democratic National Committee from 1989 to 1991. She then practiced law at the Washington offices of Hogan & Hartson.
Ms. Varney could not be reached for comment.