THE Bush White House is under a post-Perot rumor attack.
The most dramatic one - that Vice President Dan Quayle will be bumped from the reelection ticket - has no discernible basis. In Republican circles, this move is held to be very unlikely and unwise politically.
But Republicans inside and outside the White House are eager to see another rumor become fact - that Secretary of State James Baker III will leave his post for a top position running President Bush's reelection campaign. Mr. Baker did not deny the rumors July 20.
Even conservative activists, who reviled Baker's pragmatic, non-ideological hand in the Reagan White House, are hoping that he takes over the Bush re-election effort.
"At this point, we need him," says Amy Moritz, president of the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research. "It's a disaster that we need him, but we need him."
The problem for the Bush campaign is not Ross Perot's withdrawal from, or non-entry into, the presidential race. Campaign strategists view Mr. Perot's exit as a gift that makes the campaign much simpler for them.
But it is a gift that Mr. Bush and company have yet to cash in on. The bounce that the Clinton-Gore ticket took from the Democratic convention was greater than any in recent history, vaulting them about 20 points over the Bush-Quayle ticket.
The Bush presidency has not shown much more than flickers of forward momentum since last summer, and the economy has not come to the rescue.
What Baker would bring is a proven ability to run winning campaigns - proven in the Reagan campaign in 1984 and the Bush campaign in 1988. And he brings his stature as one of the president's oldest and most trusted advisers, which gives him greater license to advise assertively.
After Perot, the Bush campaign defines its task in simpler terms. It aims to polarize the race into as stark a contrast as possible between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. More specifically, the Bush team will paint Governor Clinton as a potential taxer and spender, while Bush runs as a would-be tax and spending cutter if only he was not stymied by a Democratic Congress.
"We're just going to illuminate the costs behind some of the rhetoric in New York," says Vice President Quayle's spokesman, David Beckwith. Quayle will continue to be a more aggressive campaigner than the president, he adds, with a little more partisan edge than Bush.
Bush needs to carry an economic program into the campaign, and his campaign manager, Robert Teeter, has indicated that the president will update the growth package he proposed in January.
The Republicans will also work the character issue, stressing Bush's experience over the alleged risk of a President Clinton.
"When the campaign's as far down as it is, he's going to have to go after showing that Bill Clinton isn't what he says he is," says Republican strategist Glen Bolger.
"By the time our convention comes, the comparison will be very stark," says David Carney, political director of the Bush-Quayle campaign.
Jeffrey Bell, a conservative strategist, argues that no new direction in the Bush campaign will be credible without an important personnel change that sends a loud signal: This is a new campaign and a new White House.
Baker, as economic czar in the White House or as head of the campaign, could accomplish this, say some White House aides.
Dumping Quayle, on the other hand, would be read as a sign of panic, according to several Republican strategists. "It won't happen," Mr. Bolger says.
"The only thing George Bush has going for him is Dan Quayle," says Burton Pines, chairman of the National Center for Public Policy Research. Quayle's campaign on traditional family values has forced Clinton to address those issues, he says.
Quayle can also easily surpass the extremely low public expectations of him in a vice presidential debate, say Mr. Pines and other close observers. Clinton, on the other hand, "will mop up Bush in a debate," he predicts.
The Bush campaign is still not sure what will happen to the now- leaderless Perot movement. Conceivably, enough voters could still vote for Perot in certain states to change the outcome between Bush and Clinton, notes Mr. Carney. The Perot people also could endorse candidates for offices ranging from president to county commissioner, he notes.
"With the Perot movement's focus on Congress, we could have a new Congress," says Carney.
He acknowledges that few Perot supporters are backing the Bush campaign now. But that will change, he says.
The vast majority are Republicans and share core Republican principles, Carney says. "Long term, they're there for us."