WASHINGTON -- The campaign planes run on time, and so do White House meetings. The days of internecine squabbling between the White House and the campaign appear to be over, and the once-awkward messages from the candidate have sharpened.
James A. Baker III, the man who wasn't there for much of the 1992 campaign season, has assumed control of the foundering re-election effort of his old friend, George Bush.
Mr. Baker's influence fairly radiates from the peach-colored walls of his West Wing office. When he approves the campaign schedule, there is rarely an appeal; when he sets out the theme of the day, everyone from the candidate on down follows his lead.
While the core of the Bush message hasn't changed much over the last month, it has tightened up, become leaner and clearer: Vote for the president because you trust him. Or, on the flip side, vote against Democrat Bill Clinton because you don't trust him.
By all accounts, this is the work of the new man and his small coterie of trusted aides, his own "Gang of Four:" Robert Zoelick, Dennis Ross, Margaret Tutwiler and Janet Mullins.
The Baker team hasn't reversed the president's fortunes in the public opinion polls, where he continues to lag behind his opponent, but it hasbrought to the campaign the organization and discipline needed for Mr. Bush to win.
On Aug. 13, the day Mr. Baker (with no little reluctance) left his post as secretary of state to become the president's chief of staff, the four were transported as a unit from their offices in Foggy Bottom straight into the White House operation as overseers of the Bush-Quayle '92 campaign apparatus.
At this moment, Mr. Baker's focus is negotiating the most advantageous format for presidential debates, a task he has handled in three previous GOP campaigns. Fewer and later might be the watchwords for Mr. Baker's debate strategy, and he is attempting to keep his Democratic rivals off balance by hinting the incumbent might not debate at all.
Inside the White House and at Bush-Quayle re-election headquarters, there is a lips-are-sealed fear of crossing the man running both operations; there is a sense, reflecting both resentment and relief, that someone strong is in charge.
From the moment Mr. Baker became the final arbiter of the troubled campaign, he and his team assumed control of the Bush schedule. They wrested all communications and speech-writing functions; they scrapped what was left of the president's plans to vacation in Kennebunkport, Maine, before Nov. 3.
All coordination with the Bush-Quayle '92 campaign staff a few blocks away is handled by the Baker team, though those team members are rarely sighted and seldom travel with the presidential entourage.
Nonetheless, other White House officials, those former Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan dubbed "the frogs on the log" because they all vied to sit behind the president and get within camera range, have been reduced to observer status.
The dramatic concentration of power built by and around this veteran political strategist means that
only a handful of people will share responsibility for Bush's success or failure this fall.
The close and complex relationship between the two has fascinated Washington since Mr. Bush first ran for the White House in 1980.
Mr. Baker's valedictory speech to the State Department, which focused on the application of the administration's foreign policy successes to domestic affairs in a second term, served as the model for the president's acceptance speech in Houston.
That led to Mr. Bush's Sept. 10 speech to the Economic Club of Detroit, which strove to provide for the first time the broad outlines of an economic plan and to begin to clarify the differences between his approach and that of his Democratic rival.
In Detroit, Mr. Bush began to argue that it was he, and not Mr. Clinton, who could provide the plausible strategy for economic recovery and growth. And for the first time in his campaign, Mr. Bush attempted to offer a forward-
looking economic message, one designed to help the president escape the reality of the recession and the sluggish recovery that has dogged his tenure.
It was a clarity that former White House Chief of Staff Sam Skinner and campaign chairman Bob Teeter had been unable to achieve.
Still, positive results of Mr. Baker's handiwork have not shown up in the polls, which continue to present Mr. Bush with a daunting challenge in the last seven weeks of the campaign.
A national CNN/USA Today Gallup Poll out yesterday showed the Arkansas governor with a 9-percentage-point advantage over the president. Also yesterday, a Field Poll in California, a state with 54 of the 270 electoral votes required to win the White House, showed Mr. Bush trailing Mr. Clinton 58 percent to 33 percent.