Concern is growing in the White House that the so- called "staff problem" is beginning to damage the Carter re-election campaign. Even as GOP chairman Bill Brock was telling reporters over breakfast Sept. 15 that a drug charge against Tim Kraft was a part of a "pattern of charges" against close Carter confidants which was damaging to the President, a source within the administration was agreeing that this was true.
(Mr. Kraft resigned from his post as Carter's national campaign manager Sept. 14 following disclosures that he was under investigation for alleged use of cocaine. Kraft, who maintained he was "completely innocent of the charges," announced he would take a "leave of absence" from his post to "avoid political exploitation of the false charges against me.")
"The Kraft thing of itself won't hurt us," the administration source elaborated. "After all, it is only a charge. He doubtless will be cleared -- just as Ham Jordan was.
"But in the minds of the public it is just another incident in the lives of the President's personal or official family -- incidents where individuals have gotten into jams or apparently committed indiscretions.
"So I agree that this appearance of a pattern of such things does hurt us."
The Kurt incident comes at a time when the Senate investigation of Billy Carter has begun to heat up. Although the investigation into the President's brother's business dealings with Libya has not been an issue in the re-election campaign, it could become one. Several presidential advisers are expected to be questioned: Zbigniew Brzezinski, the President's national security adviser, is an announced witness at hearings scheduled for Sept. 17. And former budget director Bert Lance will reply to investigators' written questions on Sept. 18. Philip J. Wise, the President's appointment secretary, and Thomas Beard, a former staff member who handled State Department contacts regarding Billy Carter , also may be called to testify.
With this uncomfortable spotlight focused on White House advisers, Republicans now are saying that a vague public feeling of uneasiness about the President's staff has become a vote-getter for Ronald Reagan.
The questions being raised by voters seem to take two tacks:
1. What is the standard of ethical conduct of those close to the President? This query has been occasioned by the charges leveled at Bert Lance, Dr. Peter bourne, Hamilton Jordan, Billy Carter, and, now, Kraft.
2. How efficient and how effective is the White House team? The charges about White House staff improprieties have built a public image of a staff young , smart-aleck Georgians who really are not qualified to help the President run the nation.
Ironically, veteran president-watchers, who see the President's staff up close, have not been highly critical of the staff's performance.
Chief of staff Jack watson, for one, is perceived to be a first-rate presidential aide. Jody Powell is considered by some a wisecracker -- but also as one of the better press secretaries. mr. Jordan has his lighter moments, too -- but he is a supurb political adviser. And Stuart Eizenstat is considered a standout as a shaper of legislation.
Old hand Lloyd Cutler, who has advised other presidents and who came on board within the last year, has added a dimension of seasoned judgment to the team. And Ray Jenkins has brought poise and experience to the White House press section.
As one Washington political analyst sees it:
"For the first time in my memory the White House staff, of itself, has become an issue in an election campaign. . . . there are a lot of people who rather like Carter but who may vote against him because they don't think much of his staff."