IF the Bush campaign needs a hero to gallop to their political rescue - and that's the sense here in New Orleans - the right man may have just climbed into the saddle. Many Bush supporters wish that former Treasury Secretary James Baker III had made the transition from protector of the nation's economy to producer of the Republican's next victory much sooner. Managing the dollar is fine, they say, but the GOP now is more concerned with its political currency, which will be greatly devalued if they lose the White House.
Mr. Baker, who left the Treasury Department two weeks ago to become George Bush's campaign chairman, is expected to provide some savvy political leadership and renewed energy to the vice-president's fall race. He takes full control of the reins today, smack in the middle of a disturbing political crisis.
Whatever the outcome of the flap over Sen. Dan Quayle's background, Bush supporters are pleased that Baker is in place.
``He is perceived all over as being almost a miracle worker - he touches things and they work,'' says one close associate.
``It adds the element of assurance,'' says Rep. Joe Skeen of New Mexico on the convention floor. ``This is a guy who knows his business, he's a real pro. We think that it will firm up the entire control and direction of the campaign.''
Baker managed Bush's 1980 presidential campaign against Ronald Reagan, and then landed the chief of staff job in the Reagan White House.
He receives high accolades from across the political spectrum on his deft performance in that position and as secretary of the Treasury after he traded positions with Donald Regan at the beginning of Mr. Reagan's second term.
Baker has told close friends that he was determined not to take over the campaign immediately upon his resignation as Treasury secretary. He explained that he had some unfinished business at Treasury that he wanted to clean up.
While he has been involved in the Bush campaign, he has been careful to keep his advice to the vice-president private.
Interior Secretary Donald Hodel says he's ``been looking forward to [Baker's] taking the reins. We're going to see the effects in the campaign now.''
Secretary Hodel expects Baker to oversee the kickoff of strong state campaign organizations, better overall coordination, and a substantial use of surrogates.
In interviews with a number of television networks yesterday, Baker acknowledged that the circumstances around Mr. Quayle's enlistment in the National Guard during the Vietnam era are being looked into. He questioned the relevance, however, of a decision made 20 years ago by a 22-year-old man.
In the face of the questions being raised by the press and even Republican delegates, Baker stands by Bush's choice of Quayle, and he insists that the senator will be a tireless and effective campaigner.
``I don't think he is going to make many changes,'' says New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu about Baker. ``He may adjust things to his style, but basically the direction and the focus ... are good.''
``The general election is much more a national election,'' Governor Sununu continues, speaking of the decision to place Baker over campaign manager Lee Atwater, who has run the campaign through the primary season and convention. ``The national election comes all at once so it's a different situation.''
Frank Lavin, who heads the office of political affairs at the White House, describes Baker as ``one of the finest men in American government today.''
``You think of him as a government expert because he has done so well over the last eight years,'' Mr. Lavin says.
But because of Baker's experience in four presidential elections, ``he is also a political expert. He is one of the few people in public life who has proven himself in both fields.''
Lavin expects to see a big difference in the Bush campaign from here on out:
``The goal for last year and this spring was retail politics. It was organizing state conventions and primaries, and promoting fall turnout. ... This fall it's wholesale politics - it's a national campaign trying to reach 250 million people.'' Things like the campaign's message, media planning, travel scheduling, and other factors will take on a new focus, Lavin says.
There is speculation that Mr. Atwater will take a back seat to Baker, who has a different style and a much more personal relationship with the vice-president.
High-level Bush staff aides who are watching the transition say they see few problems or changes so far.
``Lee Atwater did a superb job,'' Lavin says. ``They won ahead of schedule. ... They beat some very tough folks, so he obviously did a very good job.''
Political analysts agree that if the Bush camp can make a quick recovery from the problems now circulating about Quayle, the GOP nominee is in good position to run a strong fall campaign.