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WASHINGTON — The American Plastics Council's Red Cavaney is being considered as a possible president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but chamber officials caution that their search is in the early stages.

Cavaney, APC chief executive officer, is just one of many candidates whose names were submitted to the search committee. But he has strong ties to the chamber and his future at APC could be clouded by APC's ongoing merger talks with the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.

Cavaney is chairman of the chamber division that represents trade associations and has served on the group's board of directors.

Chamber President Richard Lesher, head of the group since 1975, announced Feb. 24 he is stepping down.

Cavaney said March 12 that he is honored that several people have told him they nominated him. Cavaney said he has not talked with anyone at the chamber about the position.

``This is not an unusual phenomenom in this town,'' he said. ``I hadn't, frankly, given it any thought.''

Cavaney, who has been head of APC since October 1994, has the right business, political and trade association background for the chamber position, said Wayne Valis, an outside lobbyist for APC and SPI who also worked for Cavaney when both were in the Reagan White House. Valis was asked by the chamber's search committee for input and nominated Cavaney.

Cavaney was Reagan's deputy assistant for public liaison from 1981-1983, where he built private

sector coalitions to support legislative initiatives and got to know a ``very wide diaspora'' of CEOs, Valis said. Cavaney worked directly for Elizabeth Dole, he added.

Cavaney worked in the Nixon and Ford White Houses, and was president and CEO of Ericson Yachts Inc. in Irvine, Calif., from 1977-1981.

He became president of the American Forest and Paper Association in January 1993.

He also has been in charge of scheduling and planning at several Republican National Conventions, Valis said.

``He's a very strong candidate,'' Valis said.

Valis, who has known Cavaney since 1972, said his friend is happy with his position at APC.

``It's not like Red wants to jump off a sinking ship,'' he said. ``It's not even close to that here.''

Earlier this year, Cavaney was named Association Executive of the Year by Association Trends magazine. Lesher received the same award in 1994.