LOS ANGELES. — Los Angeles -- Well, finally we know the secret of America's part-time financial guru, part-time peacemaker to the world and full-time president-maker, James A. Baker III. Pencils ready? Here it is: Give them money!
It makes you want to clap a hand to your head and say, ''Why didn't I think of that?'' Which is probably precisely what President Bush said to Mr. Baker when they went to the mountain in Wyoming to figure out how to snatch victory from the ashes of bad polls.
Give money to whom? To anyone who asks. Old people. Wheat farmers. Cotton farmers. Hurricane victims. Defense workers. Riot survivors. Anybody who asks between now and Election Day.
Here is how it is working in Los Angeles:
For almost four months the president and his leaderless lot provided little but application forms and words for people hurt in one way or another by the South Central riots of late April, particularly small-business people. The whole federal aid program was a joke -- an angry joke that was getting angrier.
Last week, Washington folks representing the president's Emergency Task Force blew into town with the modern equivalent of what used to be called ''walking-around money'' -- the cash that old big-city bosses used to pass around to buy votes in poor precincts.
The old bosses and their coat-holders were mostly Democrats, so it is fitting that the White House is now paying Democratic lobbyists and ''consultants,'' and telling them this: ''You know these people down there. Get money to them -- fast. As fast as you can. To the churches, community organizations, whoever is complaining. Shut these people up.''
The story is the same, but fast-forwarding in Florida after Hurricane Andrew. The idea is to stop the complaints that the Army under George Bush can get to Kuwait City to help oil sheiks faster than it can get to Miami to help fellow Americans.
The cash-distributing emergency operations are not designed to buy votes. Mr. Bush probably won't win California, and if he does it won't be with the help of voters from South Central. The problem is image. Complaints about the slowness of relief B.B. -- Before Baker -- were a national image problem. Headlines about the complaints were reinforcing the idea that Mr. Bush just doesn't care about Americans in trouble -- and that he's incompetent to boot.
That does not mean the president is above directly buying votes. That's why he's promising to pick up the bill, whatever it is in Florida, a state he does have to carry to win, and putting $1 billion into rebuilding Homestead Air Force Base while other bases are being closed down around the country. That's why he's throwing $2 billion or so at farmers, and authorizing selling made-in-Texas F-16s to Taiwan.
There will be more, much more. If you are organized and want federal money, call the White House and ask for Jim. This offer expires on Nov. 3.
All that does not mean that Bill Clinton would not do exactly the same thing if he controlled the nation's purse strings. He is out there charging that Mr. Bush is going to cut Medicaid but pledging he would never do anything like that. He also survived at the American Legion convention 10 days ago by saying he might be a draft dodger, but he would never, never cut veterans benefits, never. Weighing those two things, the Legionnaires cheered and cheered.
Labor Day is the traditional opening day of American presidential campaigns, but nobody bothered about that tradition this year. Mr. Clinton obviously learned something from the Dukakis campaign, which went into hiding, and irreversible decline, between the Democratic National Convention and Labor Day.
Mr. Clinton is running scared, which he should be. Americans are now turning slowly toward the campaign, though they will probably not give it full attention before the end of the World Series. Right now, sifting all the polls and a couple of hunches, I would say that Mr. Clinton is ahead by eight to 10 percentage points -- and the odds are that gap will shrink rather than expand over the next two months.
George Bush, clown that he seems to be these days, is well within striking distance of victory in November. The president would clobber Mr. Clinton if the economy were good. But if the president and his sidekick, Baker the Bagman, cannot figure out how to help all Americans, they are certainly ready to try to buy them one at a time.
Whatever it takes, they will do. Baker has that secret: Give them money!
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.