WASHINGTON -- As President Bush tries to dig his way out of the political doldrums, some of his closest friends and advisers acknowledge that he has become emotionally and physically drained at times in the job, and that at one point last year he considered not running for re-election.
Even now, though associates say Mr. Bush has largely bounced back from any misgivings, some aides continue to express concern about whether he can generate enough enthusiasm to run an effective re-election campaign.
White House officials say the president is now in top physical and mental condition, but one Bush intimate told the Boston Globe that the combined effect of the Gulf War, personal health problems and political attacks had left the 68-year-old president in a depression for months, and that only recently had he snapped out of it. While suggesting he meant the remark on depression as hyperbole, the associate later repeated that Mr. Bush had "been down for months" and noted that during the war with Iraq last year, he often slept only a few hours a night.
At one point shortly after the war, this associate said, "There was the deepest thought given to not running." He said Mr. Bush "decided to do it without great enthusiasm. A large part of it is getting him cranked up. We will do that by the middle of August."
By any measure, Mr. Bush's term has been tumultuous, ranging from the collapse of European communism and the Gulf War to domestic recession and a bout with heart and thyroid problems.
Most recently, Mr. Bush's standing has plummeted in opinion polls, while he has also sustained attacks from two men he once considered friends or allies: GOP presidential challenger Patrick Buchanan and likely independent candidate Ross Perot. Most upsetting to Mr. Bush, said his aides, have been attacks on his family by political rivals.
"If you are a human being, you have to get down when your friends go after you, and if you are a father you have to get down when they go after your children," said Dr. Burton Lee, Mr. Bush's personal physician.
Mr. Bush showed his sensitivity on that subject Monday, in an interview with ABC's "20/20" program. Responding to stories that Mr. Perot had looked into damaging reports about two of his children, Mr. Bush retorted, "That is beyond the pale. Leave my kids alone, I say." Mr. Perot has denied he investigated the Bush children.
Dr. Lee described Mr. Bush as being overworked and sometimes tired, but stressed that the president remains in excellent health. He said Mr. Bush is handling these problems much better than most people would.
Dr. Lee said Mr. Bush's bout with a thyroid problem known as Grave's Disease was being treated so precisely that his metabolism is no different from a normal person's.
Despite the apparently successful treatment, however, it was perhaps inevitable that rumors arose about whether Mr. Bush has been more seriously ill than his doctors have said, which in turn led to speculation about whether such an illness could force him to quit the race. Such talk apparently led Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker to joke recently on a radio show with Vice President Dan Quayle that Mr. Bush would not be on the final Republican ticket.
But no senior official or aide in or out of government has seriously suggested publicly that Mr. Bush might fade from the race, and his sons said in interviews that their father is ready to stay the course. Mr. Bush has repeatedly said the same.
Dr. Lee said he constantly hears "amazing rumors" about Mr. Bush being seriously ill. But Dr. Lee stressed that all such rumors are untrue.
Dr. Lee readily acknowledged, however, that Mr. Bush has paid a price for being president.
"What I see is that this is a very tough job," Dr. Lee said. "I have seen him when he looks real tired. I have seen him when he has had a few days off and he looks like he did in the beginning. The guy works too damn hard, if you want to know what I think. I would like to see him take it easy."
Dr. Lee said the president thrives during a crisis such as the Gulf War, but does become "down" when he has to deal with political matters, personnel changes and attacks on his family.
Dr. Lee said he thinks Mr. Bush will feel better when he begins attacking his presidential rivals after the August Republican convention. "That will take care of the anxiety and stress," Dr. Lee said.
Mr. Bush, who used aggressive negative tactics in his 1988 campaign, has expressed impatience to join the campaign fray, and has said he will launch a strong attack against Democrat Bill Clinton and Mr. Perot after the Republican convention in Houston.
George W. Bush Jr., the president's eldest son, asked about rumors that his father was feeling poorly and might be inclined to drop from the grueling race, denied both vehemently.
"That's just plain crap," the junior Mr. Bush said. "Our problem is keeping him from all-out campaigning right now."