WASHINGTON — MANY rank-and-file members of the Bush administration have been quietly looking for work in recent weeks.
Karen Czarnecki, deputy director of executive-branch liaison at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says many of them have called her office for job-seeking advice.
The optimism that greeted the arrival of James Baker III to the White House in late August has reverted, for many Bush appointees in the government, to a deep frustration with the Bush campaign.
Talk in Republican circles is no longer of a probable Bush recovery and win. The optimists now are people who can create possible scenarios for victory.
This week, optimism is running a little higher than last week - which ranked as an all-time low point for morale of the Bush troops.
The biggest relief among conservatives is that, should the Bush administration win a second term, budget director Richard Darman and Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady will no longer dominate its economic policy.
Instead, White House chief of staff Baker will carry the economic and domestic policy portfolio in a second Bush term, as Bush first revealed in the debate Sunday. Mr. Darman was the strongest advocate for - and chief architect of - the 1990 budget deal that broke Bush's no-tax pledge. Mr. Brady reportedly gave the president strong advice to publicly minimize the recession in its early months.
The moderate boost in spirits started with the first debate Sunday. Ross Perot's popular performance raised hopes in the Bush camp that the president will rise again to claim a substantial sum of voters - mostly from Bill Clinton. Mr. Clinton's highly polished style raised hopes that voters will distrust him as they look more closely at him.
BUSH also used the debate to throw out an offhand comment that resulted, over the next 24 hours, in the promise to purge top White House economic policymakers.
"The simple fact of removing Darman and Brady has given people a lot of hope," says Jeffrey Eisenach, director of GOPAC, a conservative Republican fund-raising committee.
"It would have been so much better if it had been done at the convention or even earlier," says Jeffrey Bell, a conservative author and consultant.
The decision was finally made late last week, reportedly. Just days before, Bush had indicated that Baker would return to his former post as secretary of state in a second Bush term.
That was not a good week for the Bush administration. As the White House staff was working zealously to turn back the effort to override Bush's veto of the cable TV regulation bill, one poll was showing Bush 21 percentage points behind Clinton.
The cable vote in Congress then became "every man for himself," says Tom Korologos, a Republican lobbyist, and a Bush veto was overturned for the first time in his presidency.
At the same time, the Washington Post was publishing a series on Bush's economic policy that painted a picture of rudderless contention and endless turf-fighting. Darman was reported to have labeled as "sheer idiocy" the Bush decision to treat the 1990 tax deal as a mistake that he regretted.
Bush gave Darman a vote of confidence publicly last week, however, and he is also among the handful of advisers briefing Bush for the debates this week.
While it is not impossible that Bush, if reelected, would offer another post to Darman, White House aides made it clear on Monday that Darman, Brady, and Council of Economic Advisers chief Michael Boskin would be out.
Mr. Bell hopes to see a shift away from the Darman-Brady approach in tonight's debate. Bush's line of argument in the first debate was not change-oriented, he says. By arguing that the economy is not as bad as it has been made out to be and for the importance of experience, Bush was in effect making a case for the status quo.
"They know they have to have a different approach," he says.
The demoralization in the Bush administration and campaign is mostly at the middle and lower levels, says Bell, "because these are the people most subject to what they read in the press."
Attitudes ride a roller coaster, says Ms. Czarnecki, often based on hearsay about the morale of the president himself. Based on her daily contacts at the White House, she says, "People in the administration don't think the campaign has its act together."
Mr. Eisenach believes that it does, considering the situation.
"Morale is very high" given the anger Republicans around the country direct at the administration and the campaign, he says. "I think they've stayed on the ball" and listened well.
The campaign has kept its focus on attacking Clinton as a likely tax raiser, Eisenach says, adding: "I think that stuff ultimately works."