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NOTHING could be more natural, politically speaking, than for James Baker III to come to the rescue of a foundering Bush reelection campaign. Mr. Baker's credentials are impeccable. He's been at George Bush's side for years, and if anyone can sort out the president's inchoate domestic-policy messages, Baker can.
But the Baker move also has strongly negative aspects. What does it say about the depths of the president's problems when he needs to draft the nation's top diplomat to help set a straight course toward November? The secretary of state is, to put it mildly, otherwise occupied at the moment.
The Middle East peace process may move ahead without Baker. But his departure will furrow brows among Arab leaders especially. Baker broke the Arab image of Americans as incapable of being evenhanded when it came to Israel. Other foreign-policy irons in the fire include aid to Russia, escalating problems with Iraq, and the agonizing situation in what used to be Yugoslavia.
Current Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger will most likely step into the breach, and he's a diplomat of great experience. But Baker will be missed.
His deft political touch, however, will be welcome by most workers in the GOP's '92 campaign. It will be interesting to see what changes Baker will make. Will he reopen the question of easing Dan Quayle out in favor of someone whose following extends further than the right wing of the Republican Party? (Bush has slammed the door on that subject in recent days, but it keeps edging open.) Will he temper the attack-dog tactics so favored by Bush's generals in 1988 and supposedly in store for this year? (Bak er, it should be remembered, was in charge of the '88 campaign.)
The new campaign chief would be wise to play down the old liberal-baiting and focus on what the president would do in the four years ahead.
In any case, Jim Baker faces what could be his toughest-ever political mission. While we know why he's likely to take it up, we can't help wishing he would stay with what could prove even more important missions in the international arena.