WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III's expected return to his role as President Bush's chief political operator is part of a broader effort to re-create the successful team that won the White House for the Republicans in 1988.
That Mr. Baker is apparently ready to trade his diplomatic portfolio for a political one is a sign of just how desperate Mr. Bush's condition has become. With the economy stuck in low gear, the incumbent finds himself 30 points behind in the polls with barely 3 1/2 months until Election Day.
"There have been many discussions that if the economy isn't better -- or perceived to be better -- we're going to have a tough race and could lose," Charles Black, a senior campaign adviser, told a group of reporters yesterday. "President Bush knows it's possible to lose this race."
Four years ago, the Bush team combined hardball tactics and killer instincts with efficient execution to devastate the front-running campaign of Michael S. Dukakis.
This summer, they are yearning for a political tactician who can package the Bush message and target it with the skill of Lee Atwater, the former Republican National Committee general chairman who died last year of a brain tumor. Richard N. Bond, the current GOP chairman, has some of Mr. Atwater's sharp-tongued skill but has yet to demonstrate an unwavering approach for an opponent's political jugular.
More importantly, Mr. Bush needs someone to help mold him into the confident, successful campaigner he became at the time of his first nominating convention. In 1988, that role was masterfully filled by media adviser Roger Ailes, who helped prepare Mr. Bush for debates by alternately taunting him into anger and making outrageous comments to break his tension.
Mr. Ailes, currently producing a new syndicated TV program for conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, said yesterday there is "not a chance" he will return to his role as Mr. Bush's advertising and image consultant.
But campaign advisers predict that Mr. Ailes will agree to coach the president for special appearances if Mr. Bush asks for his help. And they expect Mr. Bush to ask.
The president claims that he won't be in the "political mode" until around Labor Day, the traditional start of the general election campaign. But for months he has been appearing at campaign events, where he sometimes tries to inject passion and winds up sounding silly.
On Tuesday, he stood before a Russian Orthodox church in a New York City suburb and promised to "fight for the faith."
The same day in Philadelphia, he appeared unfamiliar with a key feature of his proposal to provide vouchers to parochial school students -- that it would be based on financial need.
"He's just not switched on yet," a Bush political aide said. "It's something in his head."
Many Republicans look upon Mr. Baker, the president's closest friend and veteran politician who gets most of the credit for his 1988 victory, as Mr. Bush's last, best hope for recovering from the 2-to-1 lead Democrat Bill Clinton holds in the polls.
The secretary of state is regarded by 1988 campaign veterans as a shrewd manager who can listen to advice, make decisions, call Mr. Bush and have the recommendations implemented "in five minutes."
By contrast, Mr. Bush's current political advisers "couldn't make a decision if their hair was on fire," one senior administration official said.
For the past seven months, it's been campaign by committee. The direction of the Bush-Quayle campaign has been repeatedly set, reversed and revised in a bureaucratic tango between the White House and a troika that runs the re-election headquarters.
In the process, the president has lost countless opportunities to make his case to voters, supporters say. Rep. Vin Weber, a Minnesota Republican who is expected to join the Bush-Quayle campaign as an adviser, said yesterday that despite a series of major reform proposals -- on school choice, enterprise zones and capital gains tax cuts -- the president is fighting "a deep-seated perception" that "he's not committed to changing things."
Mr. Weber called reversing that perception "a daunting challenge" that has to begin immediately.
At the same time, Bush supporters say, there's been no clear focus on the weaknesses of Mr. Clinton, who clinched the Democratic nomination months ago.
It's not yet clear how Mr. Baker might restructure the existing White House and campaign staff to work the 1992 version of his 1988 miracle, and the speculation is taking its toll on the already frazzled Bush team.
The president yesterday made a rare appearance at an early morning meeting of his senior staff members to try to quell the rumors by telling them that he had not yet officially decided to ask Mr. Baker to move from Foggy Bottom.
But almost everyone in Washington is convinced Mr. Baker will be arriving at the White House shortly, and many Bush supporters couldn't be happier.
"The sooner the better," said Sheila Tate, Mr. Bush's 1988 campaign press secretary.