WASHINGTON -- After a stormy three-year tenure, White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu resigned yesterday, telling President Bush he did not want to be "a drag on your success" during the 1992 re-election campaign.
Mr. Sununu, whose abrasive style earned him the title "pit bull" of the presidency and left him with few allies and many powerful enemies, was undone by political missteps that proved increasingly embarrassing for Mr. Bush.
The chief of staff submitted his resignation in a handwritten letter that the president accepted in writing "with reluctance, regret and a sense of personal loss."
White House staff announced the resignation while traveling with Mr. Bush and Mr. Sununu in Mississippi yesterday.
The resignation becomes effective Dec. 15, but Mr. Bush said in his acceptance letter that Mr. Sununu would remain on the administration staff as a presidential counselor with full Cabinet rank through March 1 of next year, during which time he would continue to seek Mr. Sununu's counsel "on the important issues facing our country."
Speculation on a successor immediately centered on Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner, a Bush favorite and loyalist who is considered hard-nosed but not as curt and combative as Mr. Sununu. A White House official confirmed that Mr. Bush had a private dinner with Mr. Skinner on Sunday after meeting earlier with Mr. Sununu. Mr. Skinner headed Mr. Bush's 1988 campaign in Illinois.
Administration and party officials said that they could not confirm the accuracy of such speculation but that they expected an announcement on a successor shortly, possibly as early as today.
Mr. Skinner would be a popular choice among most Cabinet members, Republican members of Congress and party officials, said a GOP consultant. Other possible successors mentioned were Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and business executive Frederic V. Malek, a close Bush adviser and former Nixon administration official.
House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., discounted the importance of Mr. Sununu's resignation.
"The political problems being experienced by President Bush relate to the recession and to the economic policies that hurt America's working families, not the leadership of [former New Hampshire] Governor Sununu in carrying out those policies," he said.
The announcement of Mr. Sununu's departure was not brought about by any single act, a Republican strategist said yesterday, but was rather the culmination of a series of "continued controversies that became a liability that the president could not afford."
"The Sununu controversies had become distractions for the president. He is ready to break into a new agenda. He's got to get his campaign going," said the strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Mr. Sununu's resignation followed an accumulation of sporadic controversies going back more than a year, beginning with his behind-the-scenes clashes with senior congressional Republicans over the 1990 deficit-reduction package, another GOP strategist said.
It culminated, the strategist said, with several incidents in recent weeks that embarrassed Mr. Bush and prompted Republican leaders to blame him for the administration's apparently lackluster response to the country's economic woes.
Mr. Sununu, in his resignation letter, did not accept the blame. Instead he referred to "distorted perceptions" that he said could ordinarily be deflected but that, in the context of Mr. Bush's re-election campaign, could easily be "converted into real political negatives."
"And I would never want to not be contributing positively, much less be a drag, on your success," he wrote. "Therefore, as we enter the contentious climate of a political campaign, I believe it is in your best interest for me to resign as chief of staff."
Mr. Bush's popularity has dropped precipitously since a post-gulf war high last spring to a low of around 50 percent in some polls as he gears up for the 1992 campaign.
There was speculation in Republican circles yesterday that Mr. Sununu may assist in Mr. Bush's re-election campaign. But he is unlikely to play a lead role, Bush political advisers said. It was largely through his efforts as governor of New Hampshire that Mr. Bush reversed an early defeat in the 1988 Republican nomination race. With Mr. Sununu by his side, candidate Bush campaigned for and won the pivotal New Hampshire primary in February of that year and never looked back.
Keeping Mr. Sununu on the payroll until March 1, as Mr. Bush said he plans to do, means that he will be part of the administration through the New Hampshire primary, scheduled Feb. 18. The president, asked yesterday whether Mr. Sununu would have a role in that primary, smiled and said: "You bet. You bet."
Mr. Sununu, referring to his pugnacious reputation, promised the president in the resignation letter "that in pit bull mode or pussycat mode (your choice, as always) I am ready to help."