FOUR years ago this summer, between the conventions, George Bush was trailing by 17 percentage points in the polls and struggling to overcome his image as a "wimp."
Enter James Baker III, who brought either the talent to turn the race around or the impeccable timing to take over as prospects were improving. Or both.
On Aug. 5, 1988, Mr. Baker left his Cabinet position as treasury secretary to take over the Bush campaign. From then on, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis's support was methodically shorn away.
One of Bush's oldest and closest friends, Baker is once again about to leave behind a Cabinet post - this time, as secretary of state - to run a beleaguered Bush campaign, White House and campaign sources are quoted as saying. (Impact on State Department, Page 3.)
Baker would bring many assets to the Bush campaign. One of the most valuable is the mystique he carries as a past master of the patient arts of wielding power effectively.
For all the keen political instincts he will bring to the Bush team, he is also a symbol - a signal to the public that Bush is ready to act on the domestic front.
In the most widespread version of the story, and the one preferred by many Republican strategists, Baker would not assume a formal campaign role. Instead he would probably become an economic policy czar in the White House, with authority to coordinate both campaign and White House affairs.
If Baker takes on the task of carrying out a strong economic policy, says Rep. Vin Weber (R) of Minnesota, a leading House conservative, then people will assume it will get done.
Bringing in Baker "signifies an understanding that [Bush] needs to take action," to show a "commitment to change," Mr. Weber told reporters this week at the Heritage Foundation think tank.
Political rhetoric about change strains credibility, Weber adds, "but personnel changes are real. And the right personnel changes signal an intent to change behavior."
Part of Baker's value lies in his skill as a manager and political tactician. Baker has always been a painstaking pragmatist, a disciplined and competitive player of the game, without a deep interest in policies or principles. But he has built a sterling reputation as someone who achieves results.
BAKER'S value also lies in his long and close friendship with President Bush. His job in orchestrating the bureaucracies in the White House and the campaign will be easier and more efficient because people in both places know that he has a unique level of access and credibility with the president.
"Because of the Baker mystique - good or ill, it's there - no one will vie to be No. 1," says Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster and consultant.
The rivalry to dominate organizations and influence the candidate, he says, is "one of the most debilitating things in a campaign."
Even better, Mr. McInturff adds, Baker is likely to bring longtime aide Margaret Tutwiler, now State Department spokeswoman, along with him. She is readily accessible, and everyone knows that she speaks for Baker, adding to the efficiency and clarity of the team, McInturff says.
Baker has not yet confirmed or denied that he is leaving his post as secretary of state for the White House. He has made it clear in past statements that he does not relish a descent once more into popular politics from the more rarefied air of diplomacy.
But even in foreign policy, the quality most often attributed to Baker is his nearly perfect pitch for how things play in domestic politics.
Baker's links to Bush go back to Houston in the 1960s, when they were highly competitive doubles partners in club tennis. Baker helped run part of Bush's losing Senate race in 1970.
Then Baker managed the latter half of President Gerald Ford's election bid in 1976. Mr. Ford lost to Jimmy Carter, but Baker is credited by some with closing much of the distance between the two by election day.
Baker's only attempt to win elected office himself came when he ran for attorney general of Texas in 1978. He lost.
Two years later, he ran Bush's presidential campaign. Bush lost to Ronald Reagan, but Baker was absorbed into the Reagan campaign and emerged as President Reagan's first chief of staff.
He was part of the troika that ran the Reagan White House. Michael Deaver was the guardian of the Reagan image. Edwin Meese designed conservative policies. Baker ran the operation and made things happen - or more often, he recalled later, kept "crazy things" from happening.
When Baker stepped down as treasury secretary to take over the Bush campaign in 1988, it was a committee-style operation with no clear leader, just as it is now.
The Bush team in both the campaign and the White House is now working out how bold an economic program they want to push.
The growth proposals that the president put forward last January would amount to significant change, says Representative Weber, but "no one has the slightest belief that any of them are actually going to happen."
Baker, he adds, could help change that.