For Donald Regan, the worst may be over - for now. Reagan administration sources say the embattled White House chief of staff, who three weeks ago seemed all but certain to become a casualty of the unfolding Iran-contra scandal, may yet weather the storm.
Barring new evidence linking Mr. Regan to a scheme to channel profits from United States arms sales to Iran to Nicaraguan resistance fighters, these sources say, Regan could confound his critics by surviving until the end of the Reagan presidency.
But others note that with President Reagan broadening his circle of advisers to include a larger number of experts in and outside the White House, and with more White House officials gaining direct access to the Oval Office, Regan's influence is likely to be reduced.
``Don Regan's power has diminished,'' says a Republican Senate source. ``He may survive, but he will not be the same chief of staff he has been.'' The real question now, this source adds, is whether Regan will be willing to live with the new power-sharing arrangements in the White House or will choose instead to make them the reason for an early departure.
``They're a little overstated,'' says a White House official of reports that key Reagan intimates, led by First Lady Nancy Reagan, have pressured the President to fire Regan as part of a general housecleaning following the Iran scandal. ``[Regan] is not exactly beloved in Washington, but the pressure on him does appear to be subsiding somewhat.''
Speculation that steps were being taken to ease Regan out of the job he has held since February 1985 has been fueled by the recent appointment of two White House officials who will share direct access to the President. They are incoming national-security adviser Frank C. Carlucci and David M. Abshire, who was named last week to manage the White House's handling of the Iran-contra affair. Until now, Regan has monopolized access to the President.
``It used to be that the President talked to Regan and Regan talked to everyone else,'' notes the Senate source.
By circumscribing Regan's role, the President could be sending a signal to his autocratic chief of staff that his departure would not be mourned in the White House, sources speculate.
Also widely noted has been the fact that Regan, in a break with his previous practice, did not accompany the President to California for the Christmas holiday.
``There's a symbolism attached to the President's vacation without Regan in attendance,'' notes Stephen J. Wayne, a political scientist at George Washington University. ``At this point the President wanted to distance himself a little bit from Don Regan. It all points to a big physical as well as symbolic space between the two.''
But White House insiders insist the decision to vacation separately in Florida was Regan's, designed to provide time for reflection after the turbulent events of the past month.
Meanwhile, White House sources say the appointment of Mr. Abshire, the departing US representative at NATO, was made at Regan's own urging. They say Regan argued for the appointment as a means of delegating responsibility for coordinating the White House responses to investigations by two congressional committees and a newly appointed independent counsel.
``It looks like a salutary division of labor,'' says James L. Sundquist, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, of the Abshire appointment. ``It leaves Regan in a position to worry about something else besides the scandal. Someone has to run the government without being distracted by this particular affair.''
Sources say Regan recognizes that he enjoys little popularity in or outside the White House. But he is said to believe that he plays a key role as lightning rod for criticism that would otherwise reach the President.
``His view is, `I've already taken six bullets. If I leave, there's nobody left but [the President],''' says a White House source of Regan.
Regan is also said to believe it essential that continuity be maintained in the White House at a time when other key White House aides, including deputy press secretary Larry Speakes and possibly communications director Patrick Buchanan, are leaving or preparing to leave. White House sources say Regan is already deeply immersed in preparations for next month's State of the Union and budget messages and in formulating a White House strategy to deal with the Democratically controlled 100th Congress.
One White House aide describes what he calls a ``posse mentality'' among Regan's critics in the wake of the Iran-contra affair. But following an apparent vote of confidence from President Reagan in an Oval Office meeting this month, plus Regan's own determination to dig in his heels to resist pressures for his resignation, public calls for his departure have been muted.
``What's happened was that once it became clear Regan could be around for two more years, the people who smelled blood suddenly began to hide a little,'' this aide says.
Regan has insisted he did not know until last month about the diversion of Iran arms profits to subsidize the Nicaraguan contras. Even so, a number of lawmakers have called for his resignation.
Skeptics question whether the controversial chief of staff, who holds tight control over the operations of the White House staff, could have been ignorant of the activities of key subordinates like the former national-security adviser, Vice-Adm. John Poindexter, and his aide, Lt. Col. Oliver North.
Some Republicans, such as Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, say it will be difficult for Regan to perform effectively as chief of staff as long as he remains a focus of discussion in connection with the Iran-contra affair and the subject of official inquiries.
White House sources say that, by weathering the worst of such criticism, the dogged White House chief of staff may have saved his job, at least for the short term. But few discount the possibility that Regan may use his new lease on life to pave the way for a graceful departure next spring, after helping the President through the early months of the legislative session.