WASHINGTON -- After weeks of anticipation, Secretary of State James A. Baker III, cast as the messiah who can lead President Bush out of the wilderness of a disorganized and unfocused re-election campaign if anyone can, is slated to make the switch from diplomacy back to politics as early as today.
Plans call for Mr. Baker, who ran Mr. Bush's unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980 and his successful campaign in 1988 after similarly leaving a Reagan Cabinet post, to transfer to the White House where he will coordinate all presidential and re-election campaign activities.
Exact timing is considered uncertain, but the expectation according to Republican sources is that the president will announce the change before leaving for Camp David this afternoon for the weekend. Mr. Bush and Mr. Baker met at the White House yesterday, with aides saying it was merely a regular weekly session.
NBC News and the Associated Press reported last night that Mr. Baker will resume the job of White House chief of staff, from which he also ran the 1984 re-election campaign of President Ronald Reagan, replacing Samuel K. Skinner, the target of campaign criticism in recent months.
Lack of coordination by the current Bush team, and lack of crisp political decision-making and implementation, has resulted in campaign indecisiveness, confusion and frustration uncommon to Republican presidential efforts going back to the tightly regimented campaigns of Richard M. Nixon in 1968 and 1972.
Mr. Baker is widely seen, with an almost desperate hope in some quarters, as the one individual who can fill these needs and have the personal relationship with the president to make his decisions stick and fire up Mr. Bush to engage Democratic nominee Bill Clinton with greater intensity and verve.
"Instead of having people talk about what they ought to do, he will be making decisions and then acting on them," one party source said yesterday.
With the Republican National Convention opening in Houston on Monday and with the party and delegates in a state of trepidation over Mr. Bush's dismal poll showings, the transfer at long last of Mr. Baker is also seen as an essential morale booster.
Party sources say there will be some additions to the White House staff from Mr. Baker's staff at the State Department. Such major figures as general campaign chairman Robert A. Mosbacher Sr.; campaign chairman Robert Teeter and campaign manager Fred Malek at the Bush-Quayle re-election committee; and Republican National Chairman Richard N. Bond will stay in place. Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, now No. 2 under Mr. Baker, will serve as acting secretary.
Poor coordination and cooperation between the White House and the re-election committee have had the two operations openly criticizing each other, with some at the campaign frustrated not only at what they consider ineffective use of the incumbency but at Mr. Bush's own foot-dragging in getting into what he calls "the campaign mode."
The transfer of Mr. Baker is a clear signal that Mr. Bush is ready to join the fray in earnest -- and an acknowledgment that he needs his best political resource back in his old role, a role that Mr. Baker will resume with barely concealed displeasure.
Ever since Mr. Baker got into presidential politics, first as President Gerald R. Ford's chief delegate hunter in 1976, then as campaign manager for Mr. Bush in 1980 and for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, he has made it clear he prefers positions of more reputable stature. He served effectively as Mr. Reagan's first-term White House chief of staff, running the re-election campaign from that post in 1984.
In the second Reagan term, Mr. Baker became secretary of the treasury and most reluctantly left that office when Mr. Bush, then vice president, asked him to bail out another troubled campaign, his presidential bid in 1988. Mr. Baker's reward was the State Department, where efforts to achieve a breakthrough Middle East peace treaty have been his most demanding and promising undertaking.
In the White House job, he will be able to keep his hand in on foreign policy without violating ethics regulations prohibiting a ranking official from contact with his former agency for a year after he leaves it.
Democrats in Congress have already criticized the move of Mr. Baker from diplomacy back to domestic politics at this critical juncture in the Arab-Israeli peace mission. They also question the propriety of the move and can be expected to make a campaign issue of it, at least in the short term.
Four years ago, Mr. Baker was credited with taking a Bush campaign that trailed Democrat Michael S. Dukakis by 17 points in some polls and turning it into a near-landslide winner. That campaign was marked by intensive use of negative tactics against Mr. Dukakis, but much of the blame was heaped on the campaign manager, the late Lee Atwater.