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BAKER OR NO BAKER, GEORGE BUSH WILL HAVE TO SAVE HIMSELF
The imminent return of James A. Baker III may leave the Secretary of State nostalgic for a simpler challengelike Middle East peace. Baker, who ran both Bushs 1988 campaign and Ronald Reagans 1980 bid, will give the demoralized Bushies some badly needed focus and a sense of mission. And Baker may be the one person who can hand the President a solid campaign script and make him stick to it. But that alone may not be enough. One senior gop strategist even contends: This campaign has suddenly gone from George Bushs to win to Bill Clintons to lose (page 23).
Under the latest Baker plan, the architect of Bushs New World Order would turn to drafting a domestic blueprint for Bush's second term, while Deputy Secretary Lawrence S. Eagleburger would take charge at State. The troika of Robert M. Teeter, Frederick V. Malek, and Robert A. Mosbacher would nominally stay in charge of the campaign. But no one can miss the message. Wherever Baker sits down, he's at the head of the table, says a high-ranking campaign aide. Nobody goes around Baker.
DRIFTING. Baker's challenge is to overcome the perception that Bush has boated, golfed, and fished while the economy floundered. "Between breaking his no-tax pledge and the Presidents failure to enact a growth agenda, the public has concluded Bush will do nothing constructive about the economy," says retiring Representative Vin Weber (R-Minn.). "Putting Baker in charge is sufficiently dramatic that people might finally believe a second term would be different."
The arrival of Baker would shake up a White House that has been adrift for months. It's a slap at Chief of Staff Samuel K. Skinner. And some Bush aides hope that Baker can manage his rambunctious protege, Budget Director Richard G. Darman. "Finally, we'll have somebody who pushes Darman around," says one staffer. "That's a switch."
Baker's ascendancy is fueling speculation about the fate of Vice-President Dan Quayle, whose selection Baker opposed in 1988. Although polls show that 60% of voters want Bush to dump the Veep, Quayle probably has the job as long as he doesn't decide to give it up. Quayle is not only Bush's main link to conservatives but dropping him now would look desperate. "If I were a Democrat, I would nail the President for something like that," says former Reagan aide Thomas C. Griscom. Bush, having broken his most important 1988 campaign promise, would be disavowing his most important decision. The Democrats would have a field day.
Besides, most GOP insiders believe, Quayle isn't the root of Bush's problem. Nor is it the White House staff or the campaign operation. It's Bush himself. Many worry about the President's inability to understand the extent of his problems and failure to engage in the campaign. "He seems to be hurt and mad at the public," says Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier. "Thats a losing attitude."
GOING NEGATIVE. Baker's ability to shape up the President's reelection drive, coupled with a telegenic GOP convention in Houston, will help Bush close the gap with Clinton. The campaign, which ended June with $10 million that must be spent before the convention, is considering a barrage of ads showing Bush in a positive light. But Baker won't hesitate to go negative. The campaign is also readying hard-hitting ads that show voters images of a dirt-poor Arkansas, laying the mess at Bill Clinton's feet.
But will this be enough to lift Bush to victory? In 1988, voters had to overcome reservations about his admitted lack of vision. After four years as President, he still doesn't have an agenda. Until Bush stands up and defines himself, reelection will take more than Jim Bakers sure political touch.