Sununu at risk of ouster Advisers say Bush, upset by poll drop, may replace chief

November 30, 1991|By Jack Nelson and James Gerstenzang | Jack Nelson and James Gerstenzang,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, shaken by a dramatic drop in his popularity and growing discontent within his own party, is considering a shake-up in his administration that would include replacing John H. Sununu as chief of staff.

Several Bush advisers say they expect the changes to take place before the end of the year, perhaps as early as next week, although the timing may depend upon finding another position for the controversial chief of staff. Mr. Sununu may be asked to move to another post within the administration or to take a key position in the president's re-election campaign, they said.

Although Mr. Bush has continued to publicly express support for Mr. Sununu, behind-the-scenes pressure to replace him has come from Cabinet members, other presidential advisers and key Republicans in Congress. The pressure has intensified as conservative Republicans have broken publicly with the White House over the question of when the government should act to stimulate the ailing economy.

Several prominent Republicans -- using the president's son, George Bush Jr., as an intermediary -- have told the president they consider Mr. Sununu a serious political liability as he embarks on his re-election campaign. The younger Mr. Bush has conveyed the message several times recently, sources said.

The president continues to feel beholden to Mr. Sununu for the key role he played in Mr. Bush's crucial New Hampshire GOP primary victory in 1988, sources said. Yet even Mr. Bush has come to realize that Mr. Sununu's continuing presence as chief of staff would hurt him politically in 1992, they said.

One source said it remained possible that Mr. Bush would decide to leave Mr. Sununu in his job as chief of staff, while transferring some responsibilities to longtime loyalists expected to take charge of the campaign. But several knowledgeable sources, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, said the mounting dissatisfaction with Mr. Sununu among Mr. Bush's closest advisers makes it more likely that he will be replaced as chief of staff.

Mr. Sununu's brusque, imperious manner has alienated other administration officials and Republicans on Capitol Hill from the earliest days of Mr. Bush's presidency. But not until recent weeks, when many GOP critics began linking Mr. Sununu with what they characterized as the White House's lack of sensitivity to the nation's economic ills and the need for quick action on a stimulus package, has there been such intense pressure for his removal.

Mr. Bush was stunned this week when 81 GOP members of the House sent him a letter urging him to name Jack F. Kemp, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as the "domestic policy czar" of his administration.

Although the letter did not mention Mr. Sununu, the criticism was implicit. As chief of staff, Mr. Sununu has acted as the president's right-hand man on many domestic policy matters, and he has feuded with Mr. Kemp on several occasions.

Marlin Fitzwater, Mr. Bush's chief spokesman, dismissed the idea. But another Bush adviser said the letter was such "a gesture of no confidence" in Mr. Sununu that it "really shook the president."

The timing of Mr. Sununu's possible replacement, according to one Bush adviser, may depend in part upon when the president picks his re-election campaign team. "Sununu won't be left standing out there alone; it will be part of a package that will include announcing officials of the campaign," the adviser said.

Mr. Bush was described as being "preoccupied" with the task of resolving key personnel questions, involving both the re-election campaign and the White House staff. Mr. Sununu's future, said one source familiar with Mr. Bush's thinking, is "the top order of business."

"I think he's going to go -- it's [a question of] how as much as when," said this source, referring to Mr. Bush's reluctance to remove an aide under fire and his desire "to do it gracefully" if he feels he must act.

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