WASHINGTON — WHERE James Baker III is working has become a good indicator of where George Bush most wants something done.
Now that Mr. Baker is making his long-awaited shift into the White House, as chief of staff, President Bush is signaling that his campaign is ready to begin in earnest.
Baker's presence has important practical implications for the Bush campaign. It also is the first step in symbolically revamping the Bush campaign to show a commitment to action and change.
Just as Baker ran the State Department during years when foreign affairs were the president's keenest interest and of dramatically historic scope, so he was Ronald Reagan's first chief of staff in the years that Reagan scored nearly all his domestic achievements.
The expectation surrounding Baker as an unparalleled performer of political tasks - as a technocrat as reliable, precise, and efficient as a nuclear clock - is soaring. Cautious, low-key, and thorough, the aura of Baker is that whatever he does, he wins.
Republican strategists and operatives, even the conservative ideologues who loathed his influence as Reagan's chief of staff, almost universally have been calling for Baker's return to mastermind Bush's reelection.
The Baker move has come just when it was rumored to come, just before the convention. His boss and old friend is running some 20 points behind Bill Clinton, and the White House has not sustained a campaign focus for months.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released today showed Mr. Clinton 26 points ahead of the President, a spread that shows no earthward motion at all since its historic bounce after the Democratic convention.
Baker for weeks has been expected to essentially take over all Bush operations, both White House and campaign. As chief of staff, he can control Bush's schedule and his reelection effort. Samuel Skinner will become general chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Mr. Skinner, former secretary of transportation, only held the job for nine months after replacing John Sununu in the job. Skinner took over the job when the White House was off stride and in disarray last fall.
Things never really improved; and since Ross Perot left the presidential race they have gone into the tank.
In policy circles, people have said for at least the past year that Baker would only return to the campaign reluctantly if Bush was in serious trouble. He vastly prefers the role of statesman and chief diplomat.
Many Republicans believe that the president's campaign and White House staff leaders are unfairly - although inevitably - catching flak for the Bush's own lack of clear direction.
Even so, such critics admit, Baker's standing as Bush's trusted peer will give him the confidence and leverage to prod the President himself into focus.
In the past few weeks, the Bush campaign has seemed unable to find its rhythm in sparring with the Clinton team. The president has delivered some clear, aggressive messages, but the quick responses of the Clinton campaign have kept him largely on the defensive.
Bush talks constantly of his eagerness to lay into Clinton after the GOP convention next week, as if he is keeping to an earlier plan to remain presidential and above the campaign fray until then. Yet clearly he is not. The urgency of his troubles and the early intensity of the battle are demanding his "campaign mode."
Baker's very prestige can serve to sharpen the reflexes of the campaign. The current leadership approaches a management-by-committee style, where none of several principals at the top clearly outweighs the others in authority.
Baker, sitting in the White House, commands uncontested authority second only to the president. His replacement at the State Department will be Lawrence Eagleburger.