WASHINGTON -- The melancholy in President Bush' re-election campaign has reached the point where even staunch defenders are questioning the political skills of James A. Baker III, the Republican strategist who has pulled his old friend out of political trouble before.
"I have my doubts," a Republican official said in a measured tone when asked about Mr. Baker's effectiveness in reinvigorating the Bush campaign. "But I guess a lot of us are still hoping he's got another miracle left in him."
Working behind the scenes, his move Tuesday to seek four presidential debates was an example of the Texan's willingness to gamble. With the polls providing little optimism, Mr. Baker apparently decided it was time for a bold maneuver, which officials hope will shake off any malaise.
Mr. Baker's hand in tracking every campaign danger point also was displayed when he played a role in dropping a proposal to allow manufacturers to dispose of hazardous waste in town dumps. The decision was seen as Mr. Baker's eagerness to avert a pre-election tangle with environmental groups, which already are attacking Mr. Bush.
Since August, when Mr. Baker left his job as secretary of state to direct the White House staff and oversee the campaign, Mr. Bush has made only slight gains in most public opinion polls. He still lags behind Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and he continues to have problems on the road getting his message across to voters.
Mr. Baker, once a calming presence at the side of his candidates, has not traveled with Mr. Bush this fall.
Mr. Baker has declined to appear on any television talk shows and has refused all interview requests. His work on White House and campaign business is directed through four trusted aides, Robert Zoellick, Dennis Ross, Margaret Tutwiler and Janet Mullins, along with the campaign chairman, Robert Teeter.
For a man with such a high public profile during his tenure at the State Department, Mr. Baker's low profile is unusual, with the election just five weeks away.
"Baker is the best we've got to put on television," a key Republican said. "It amounts to keeping your cleanup hitter on the bench, and it's getting late in the campaign."
On the campaign trail, Mr. Bush seems to be a candidate still in dTC search of a theme, even with Mr. Baker directing traffic for him. Mr. Bush has moved alternately from trying to evoke the fighting, come-from-behind image of Democrat Harry Truman to standing the incumbent with a campaign based solely on family values.
Mr. Bush's struggle, along with Mr. Baker's orchestration of it, reminded a key operative of the campaign of Michael Dukakis in similar circumstances four years ago.
"It's a sickening feeling when you're behind," he said. "You try out every sort of issue to see if anything will click. When you're losing, it seems like nothing does."