WASHINGTON -- It may sound peculiar, but the question being asked in Washington these days is whether George W. Bush, the president's oldest son, is becoming the Nancy Reagan of the Bush White House.
Put another way: Is the younger George Bush the member of the first family with the most political clout?
Events last week suggested as much.
It was George W. Bush who first gave John H. Sununu the authoritative word that his time was up as guardian of the Oval Office. Twenty-four hours later, the normally combative Mr. Sununu quietly handed his resignation to the president.
"If George Jr. had been working [full-time] in the White House, Sununu would probably not have gotten into the trouble he did, or if he had proceeded he would have been gone quicker," said Douglas Wead, the Bush administration's point man with conservative and religious groups until Mr. Sununu fired him last year for opposing White House political overtures to homosexual groups.
George W. Bush's name cropped up again Thursday as one of the seven strategists the president has selected to run his re-election campaign. In Mr. Bush's 1988 campaign, George Jr., as he is known by his friends -- although he is not a true Jr. because he does not share his father's middle name Herbert -- was credited with playing a crucial role in keeping his father informed and campaign workers in line.
"He knows what his father is thinking and what he wants done," said Charles Black, who was named last week as Mr. Bush's senior 1992 campaign adviser.
Mr. Black, the ideological heir to the late Lee Atwater, who masterminded Mr. Bush's 1988 campaign, added: "I like working with him because it's always good to have someone around with no ego; in other words, his job is not on the line. His advice is always straightforward and completely honest."
Paul Weyrich, the president of the conservative Free Congress Foundation who used George W. Bush as a conduit to his father during the 1988 campaign, welcomed his involvement in next year's election, saying: "It's a good thing he is, because the level of competence at the top of that team is very thin.
"I would say George has a fairly good feel for the grass roots, and many of these people who are involved in the campaign have no clue as to what people are thinking."
Mr. Wead, who worked on the 1988 campaign, said: "He has influence because he is the son, far greater [influence] than any other ordinary mortal would have.
"Junior kept you honest. He was confrontational, which people don't tend to be, and that resolved many problems before they developed."
On one occasion, the campaign had produced a $20,000 videotape for conservatives that was targeted at Southern television stations. Only two or three copies were made for circulation, far too few to meet the demand.
"Stations were crying for copies, offering us thousands of dollars' worth of free air time," said Mr. Wead. He recalled that when George Jr. learned of the glitch, he was "outraged" and immediately ordered extra copies of the tape made and dispatched to the TV stations.
"He was the type to cut through that stuff," said Mr. Wead. "Junior made decisions, and sometimes he was wrong. But 95 percent of the times he was right. He knew he wasn't going to be fired, so he had the guts."
After the campaign, George W. Bush joined the White House transition team, making sure that only the Bush faithful were rewarded with prized jobs in the new administration. That done, he returned to Texas with his wife, Laura, and their twin 6-year-old daughters to pursue his business career and contemplate a run for the governorship.
The younger Mr. Bush's interests include a managing general partnership in the Texas Rangers baseball team and board membership in an oil company. The company, Harken Energy Corp., has over the past two years developed a potentially lucrative web of Mideast connections, the Wall Street Journal reported last week in a front-page article. The paper said that an investigation into those links had produced no indication of any wrongdoing or influence-peddling by Mr. Bush, but suggested that the Bahrainis and other Middle Easterners might be seeking to ingratiate themselves with the White House through the company.
Unlike his Yankee-born father who adopted Texas as his home state, George W. Bush has all the natural attributes of a native Texan. He is tough, can be noisy and has a lively sense of humor. He also has strong religious faith.
Dennis Grubb, who grew up with him in Midland, the West Texas oil capital, said of the Bush son: "He lives very competitively. He is living his dream right now [as part-owner of the Rangers], which is very lucky for him. Of all the Bush siblings, being the oldest, George is probably the most level-headed.
"Papa George -- I should say the president -- is pretty much his own man, but he does seek advice and will listen," Mr. Grubb went on. "I think George and him, on certain things, might agree or disagree, but I think they have mutual respect for each other.
"If little George was to say something and it was something that President Bush had not thought of, President Bush might put that in his thought process. But if you are implying he would go in there and say, 'Dad, you should not do this,' and President Bush would not do it, I'm not so sure."
In 1978, the younger George Bush narrowly lost a race for Congress in Texas. He decided against running for governor in 1990.
"I think, possibly down the road, there will still be political aspirations for him," Mr. Grubb said.