CHRIS Patten can rarely have been so popular. Not since last October's fateful address to the Legislative Council has the Governor received the adulation and adoration he has basked in since he arrived in Washington. Politicians seek him out and fete him as an international statesman. Learned sinologists turn to him for advice on China, foreign affairs experts in Congress regard him as an infallible oracle on the workings of the Chinese mind. Normally cynical political journalists turn starry-eyed as they trot out the now standard description of him as the ''most gifted British politician of his generation''. Even the President of the United States turned his gaze from Bosnia and public health policy for three quarters of an hour to give his undivided attention to a man the US political establishment has come to regard as a sober-suited warrior in the holy crusade for democracy in Asia. It did not take Mr Patten long to start enjoying himself. By the second day of his visit, he was well into his stride, cracking jokes about his persecutors in Beijing and the fanciful insults they have chosen for him, and wowing his hosts with his charm and rhetorical skills. The at first slightly awed surprise at the access he had been given to the top political circles here soon turned to a politician's delight at his hero's welcome. The difficult message he has come to deliver, that China's Most Favoured Nation status should not be revoked whatever its human rights violations - not even as a tool to promote democracy in Hongkong - has not undermined Mr Patten's popularity. That may be due more to the fact that the media here have been virtually silent on his visit than to his success in putting across a message so repugnant to Americans who voted for a president committed to international human rights. His success has been largely within the Washington establishment. Yet in the first few hours of his Washington tour, Mr Patten seemed less sure of himself. He appeared preoccupied as he stepped out of the British Embassy's green Rolls-Royce at the White House and barely managed a wave to the assembled Hongkong press. And when, in a strong statement of support, the President talked of his backing for Mr Patten's ''well founded'' political reform initiative, both the British delegation and some of the US party looked slightly ill at ease. It was not only Vice President Al Gore's irritation at finding a Hongkong reporter's microphone lead trailing in his hair that caused the discomfort. It was also the effusiveness of Mr Clinton's declaration. Certainly, some of those present afterwards interpreted the President's suddenly defensive remark ''I hope it doesn't offend anybody, but how can the United States be against democracy?'' as a recognition - prompted by a note from an aide - that he might have gone too far. AT the end of the meeting, Mr Patten's determined stress on how strongly he had impressed on Mr Clinton that constitutional developments were a matter for the two sovereign powers appeared to confirm the message. The President, from the best of motives, had clearly signalled to China America's support for democracy. Mr Patten, constantly looking over his shoulder to see how Beijing was receiving his campaign to deflect calls for MFN withdrawal, was now having towatch for its anger instead. China was not slow to oblige, accusing the Governor of internationalising the Hongkong debate. But the discomfiture on the Governor's part has been short lived. Instead he has managed to turn the situation to his advantage by repeating endlessly the explanation provided for him by Mr Clinton. ''I think you would find it surprising if the most important democracy in the world were not interested in democracy,'' he intones, before emphasising that Mr Clinton has understood the need to leave it to Beijing and London. If so, however, the State Department seems to have missed an opportunity to set out explicitly its determination not to interfere in China's internal affairs. After Mr Patten's talks with Acting Secretary of State Clifton Wharton and Assistant Secretary for Asia Winston Lord, it decided not to issue a statement on the grounds that the President had already made the position clear. It thus appeared to endorse his original pro-democracy remarks. The truth is slightly more complicated. While Mr Patten gets unparalleled access and is allowed to feel he has ''made a difference'' on MFN, the Clinton administration has other goals in mind. It probably is pleased the Governor has given it an excuse to tone down the anti-China rhetoric in Congress and allow the MFN conditions to be set instead by the President. But it is promoting democracy abroad that most interests Mr Clinton. Assessments of the Clinton administration's first 100 days have focused heavily on its lack of clear foreign policy and its tendency to react to crises, such as Bosnia or the communist backlash against Russian President Boris Yeltsin. This is a government in search of a defined foreign policy objective to prove it has a steady hand. It has found one in the promotion of democracy abroad, a romantic campaign-trail favourite of Mr Clinton's. And in Mr Patten, a British St George fighting to rescue the frail maiden Democracy from the Chinese dragon, it has found a shining exemplar for potential supporters in the corridors of power. Mr Patten has conveniently arrived on the scene at a time when the new policy is beginning to fall into place. TWO new senior positions are being created to oversee the democracy drive, one at the State Department to complement the existing post of Assistant Secretary for Human Rights, the other, more controversially, at the Pentagon. As the Washington Post reported this week, development aid as well as military assistance to third world governments are increasingly to be tied to the promotion of democracy and re-education of armed forces to respect civilian authority. Some officials, the newspaper says, argue that much of the bad reputation such ideas earned under President Jimmy Carter in the 70s could be reversed if emphasis is placed on reforming economic and social structures rather than winning immediate human rights concessions. China is, of course, not mentioned in this context and might have complained of interference in its internal affairs if it had been. But the article also says government broadcasters like Voice of America, now jammed by Beijing, and the embryonic Radio Free Asia will be given the job of spreading the democracy message. Mr Patten has been smart enough to warn against using Hongkong as an example. Remarks such as ''I wouldn't suggest that Hongkong was the best place to start since we're doing rather a lot ourselves at the moment,'' and ''I don't think that the United States and the foundations associated with the development of democracy have a role to play in Hongkong'' have been pointed enough to nip any half-formed American ideas firmly in the bud. Instead, by concentrating exclusively on his campaign for unconditional renewal of MFN, he has successfully stayed out of the democracy debate and avoided getting caught in any sticky ideological embrace. He has managed to look good in Washington without damaging his credibility with the awkwardness of his message. And he may, in the end, have succeeded in persuading the sponsors of the MFN bills now tabled in both houses of Congress to reconsider the wisdom of including adherence to the Joint Declaration as one of the conditions for renewal. If so, he will have made a difference on MFN. While he would not be able to save Hongkong from the adverse consequences of MFN withdrawal, he would at least have ensured China could not blame Hongkong for its problems. And he will still have got plenty of good publicity for his constitutional reforms.