REPORTERS enjoy being ``out front'' of the competition on important stories. So what would you say to a glance all the way to 1996, at the likely Republican successor to George Bush when, as expected, he finishes a second term? The ``early frontrunner'' to succeed Mr. Bush is none other than his close friend, Jim Baker, who currently is hanging his hat at State. Mr. Baker's chief contenders would be Vice President Quayle and Jack Kemp, who is cleaning up the mess he inherited at HUD and making some political hay in the process.
A Secretary of State as a presidential candidate? It may be recalled that during the Reagan administration there was speculation Secretary of State George Shultz might seek the presidency. But Mr. Shultz had no such intention. He didn't have a political bone in his body. But Jim Baker is entirely different. No one in Washington is more politically attuned than Baker.
After masterminding the 1980 Bush campaign, Baker moved alongside President Reagan as chief of staff and then as Secretary of the Treasury. Some critics said this superb politician would fail at Treasury. He proved them wrong. Soon the very economic and business observers who had questioned the appointment were hailing Baker.
Baker left Treasury to fine-tune the Bush 1988 campaign. From there he leaped into President Bush's biggest appointment: at State.
Again, there were scoffers. Baker, they said, would fail in the world of diplomacy. Indeed, among the bureaucrats at State, many with leanings toward the Democratic Party, were some who gladly fed stories to the media that Baker, from the outset, was off to a bad start, showing no real feeling for important foreign-affairs issues.
Once again Baker has quieted his critics. It's difficult to find anyone in Washington who says Baker isn't on top of his job - whether dealing with the intricacies of a new Europe or with the complexities in South Africa or the Mideast.
So Baker's claim on the presidency could be most impressive: No other candidate, including Quayle (if, indeed, he remains on the GOP ticket for a second term), could say that he is as well-prepared to take on presidential responsibilities and tasks.
Is Baker interested in making the arduous run for the presidency? I think he is. I know that early in the '80s, when Baker was chief of staff, I asked him what he would like to do next. At that time he speculated that he might like to go back to Texas and run for governor. He didn't follow that path. But he certainly indicated that he had an interest in, and the stomach for, seeking high, elected office.
Also, I recently talked to one of the nation's political leaders (a good friend of Baker's who will remain nameless here by his request). I mentioned my earlier conversation with Baker and said he might want to run for governor of Texas. ``Not governor,'' this man said. ``Jim's interested in running for president.''
Baker has yet to prove that he can win an election - unlike Quayle, a former Senator, and Kemp, a former Member of Congress. Actually, back in the 1970s before becoming a big name on the national stage, Baker ran a good but losing race for Texas Attorney General. Obviously he would improve his political credentials if he could be elevated to the No.2 spot on the 1992 slate - replacing Quayle on a winning ticket.
The other morning, over breakfast, Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin said his findings showed that should the nation be in a recession two years from now, Quayle's presence on the ticket in '92 might well hurt Bush's effort to stay in office. As of now the president says he's sticking with Quayle. But Bush, who sees Wirthlin's polling, might change his mind should he see a difficult contest ahead. And if he does, he just might once again turn to his old buddy, Jim Baker.