WASHINGTON -- In many ways, he's just a normal guy from Kansas who goes to movies at the mall with his wife, takes in Orioles games with his kids and discusses books with his friends. He jokes a lot, and he's fun at parties.
But he's living a recurring nightmare about being put up for a job he's worked his whole career to get and losing out because of a scandal in which he's not been shown to be directly implicated.
Meet Robert M. Gates, 47, deputy national security adviser to President Bush and second-time nominee for director of central intelligence -- an an "all-American boy" stuck on the flypaper of Iran-contra.
With Mr. Gates' confirmation hearings now delayed until September so the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence can examine new evidence relating to how much he knew about the CIA's involvement in the illegal diversion of funds while serving as deputy director of the agency, some predict his nightmare scenario is about to come true again.
"Gates is damned either way," said Bernard McMahon, who served as staff director for the Senate committee during its Iran-contra investigation of 1987 and now believes the Gates confirmation process has become intensely political. "If it turns out he knew, they'll say he lied. If he didn't know, they'll say he was stupid."
Friends, putting the best face on the situation, predict Mr. Gates will still be confirmed if "nothing new pops out," as one put it.
But with both the committee and Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh taking another look at whether Mr. Gates played any part in hiding the illegal use of profits from secret arms sales to Iran to finance the Nicaraguan rebels, new disclosures are coming almost daily.
"How do you stop history? It just happens," said Sven Holmes, Mr. McMahon's successor as staff director and chief investigator on the Senate Intelligence committee. "I think it would be very unfortunate, though, if this keeps Bob Gates from becoming director of central intelligence again."
It's not likely to be a total replay of 1987, when Mr. Gates and President Ronald Reagan's White House decided to withdraw his first nomination as director of central intelligence at the first hint of trouble to protect Mr. Reagan from further political bashing.
This time both President Bush and his nominee seem determined to fight it out.
Mr. Bush sees something of himself in the hapless candidate who nearly all agree is extremely bright, loyal, hard-working, eager to please and better qualified for the CIA post than almost anyone else around.
"What have we come to in this country where a man has to prove his innocence against some fluid, movable charge?" the president asked reporters during an emotional exchange outside his vacation home in Maine 10 days ago.
"You're talking to somebody who had to prove his innocence . . . me," Mr. Bush said, referring to allegations that he made a secret trip to Paris in 1980 to arrange with Iranian officials not to release U.S. hostages until after the Reagan ticket, on which he was running as vice president, had safely defeated then President Carter.
Although those charges were "based on rumor," the president has repeatedly complained that he was forced to establish an alibi by releasing old campaign schedules.
"It just distresses me," Mr. Bush said, to have Mr. Gates treated in a similar manner.
Meanwhile, the nominee is described by friends as somber.
The committee's delay not only prolongs a painful period during which his future twists uncertainly in the wind but postpones his opportunity to defend himself.
Aides say Mr. Gates believes it would violate the protocol of the confirmation process for him to make any public comment related to his nomination or the Iran-contra controversy until he addresses the senators.
"Things are pretty strained for him these days. . . . But my strong sense is he's determined to fight," said Bobby Ray Inman, who preceded Mr. Gates as deputy CIA director and has been a longtime mentor. "He would not have allowed the president to put his name forward if he had something to hide."
Driving Mr. Gates, in part, is a powerful ambition for a job to which he believes he can bring long-overdue improvements in the quality and usefulness of U.S. intelligence gathering.
Never a spy or operations man, Mr. Gates spent 22 years moving up the ladder at the Central Intelligence Agency as one of the desk-bound analysts who try to make sense of the raw data. He has been complaining since at least 1973 that he and his analyst colleagues have not been doing as good a job as they could.
Mr. Gates' views were reinforced from the perspective of a "consumer" of CIA analysis when his service at the agency was interrupted by a stint from 1974 to 1979 at the White House on the staff of the National Security Council, which he now oversees as top deputy.
Some friends have told Mr. Gates his current post is more important and prestigious than the one he's seeking. As deputy NSC adviser, for example, he was part of the "Big 8" war council that convened in the Oval Office during critical junctures of the Persian Gulf war.
But that doesn't compare with the chance to run an operation that gave him his first job out of college in 1966 and to guide it away from the Soviet military espionage of the Cold War and more deeply into the politics of the Third World.
"He really thinks he can make it a better agency," Mr. Inman said.
Critics of Mr. Gates fault him for some of the same qualities that have brought him success.
He's a neat, methodical, by-the-book guy who has managed to (( get along well with a politically and stylistically diverse series of superiors.
But some wonder now whether he put such a high premium on getting along that he simply ignored the Iran-contra scandal being cooked up under his nose by William J. Casey, then his boss at CIA.
And while Mr. Gates has made such an effort to win the respect and trust of officials such as Mr. Bush, who not only rescued his career with the NSC job but gave him the second chance to fulfill his goal, the nominee is considered a tough guy to work for by some of his employees.
"He's a perfectionist who works very hard and expects others to work just as hard as he does," Mr. Inman said.
But now, about all he can do is soldier on, minding the shop in Washington while Brent Scowcroft, top NSC adviser, travels to Moscow and Maine with the president, and hope for the best.
"His nomination is in a lot of trouble, and I say that as someone who likes him," said Representative Dan Glickman, D-Kan., who grew up across town from Mr. Gates in Wichita. "He's really a nice guy . . . an all-American boy. But I do think Bob Gates has a lot of questions to answer."