Baker gallops to Bush's rescue. Political savvy expected to bolster flagging campaign
Washington — After weeks of abysmal news, George Bush can finally smile - a little. Although still sagging badly in the polls, Mr. Bush is savoring his best week of the summer - one in which an old friend, James A. Baker III, agreed to take over a campaign staff marked by dissension.
As Republican platform hearings start today in New Orleans, Bush begins a critical series of appearances that will climax Aug. 18 with what his staff hopes will be a boffo acceptance speech at the GOP convention.
Meanwhile, it is expected that Mr. Baker, who resigned his post as Treasury secretary Friday, will make an ``extraordinary difference'' in the operation of Bush headquarters, says a former Bush aide, Peter Teeley.
But it was more than Baker's arrival that had Bush smiling. On Friday, the judge in the Iran-contra conspiracy case of former White House aide Oliver North postponed the trial until after the Nov. 8 election.
Peter Hart, a leading Democratic pollster, says the public's most serious question about Vice-President Bush involves his role in the Iran-contra affair. The decision of Judge Gerhard Gesell will keep that issue off the front pages, and perhaps out of the minds of voters.
Bush aides were also beaming over President Reagan's decision to reverse himself and accept a bill requiring 60-day advanced notice of plant closings. Michael Dukakis was using Mr. Reagan's earlier opposition to deride the Reagan-Bush team as insensitive to workers.
Bush was also pleased with Reagan's veto of a defense bill that cut back on the Strategic Defense Initiative. The vice-president hopes to use his strong support for defense as one issue that defines the differences between himself and Mr. Dukakis, the Democratic nominee.
Finally, Republicans enjoyed watching Dukakis squirm over gun control. The Democratic nominee has high hopes in the West this fall, but many Western voters find gun-control laws anathema. Dukakis is on the record with statements like: ``I don't believe in people owning guns, only the police and the military.''
It was the arrival of Baker at Bush headquarters, however, that gave the greatest lift to Republican hopes.
At the Treasury Department, Baker was already working hard on Bush's behalf - keeping the economy on full-throttle and the unemployment rate down.
Baker now will try to fire up a campaign that hasn't achieved lift-off since the vice-president wrapped up the GOP nomination this spring. Dukakis currently holds a nationwide lead of about 17 points in the polls.
Mr. Teeley says that with Baker's knowledge of the White House, and his friendship with Bush, he will pull together all parts of the campaign. ``He has superb management skills. And he will bring a badly needed strategic dimension to the campaign. Furthermore, you can't find a better spokesman in town. You can put him on `Face the Nation' and `Meet the Press' and he can stand up to anyone.''
William Feltus, a Republican analyst, observes that the Baker-Bush relationship goes way back and is very personal. That closeness will be helpful if the campaign faces rough waters in the fall.
Baker, noted for his political acumen, could also smooth over some of the disagreements within Republican ranks over the course of the Bush campaign.
Analysts say that over the summer Bush lost control of the campaign agenda, with Dukakis capitalizing on issues like plant-closing legislation, drugs, and child care.
Bush countered with various policies, including his own child-care program. But that brought howls of dismay from conservatives, such as former White House aide Patrick Buchanan, who accused Bush of fighting the campaign on Democratic issues.