Baker may get a call to arms

WHITE HOUSE officials are privately convinced that James Baker, who is on a new peace mission to the Middle East, will soon step down, on a temporary basis or otherwise, from his job as Secretary of State to take charge of the flagging re-election campaign of his old friend George Bush.

Jolted by the huge popularity 'bounce' that Democratic nominee Bill Clinton has gained from his convention, the Bush camp began its counter-attack in earnest yesterday.

The President, who earlier in the day lambasted Mr Clinton's economic plan as a 'smoke and mirrors' cover for planned tax increases, was due to give a satellite pep-talk to Republican rallies in 27 states last night. Later this week he may unveil a revamped economic strategy. Nothing, though, would have the impact of a summons to Mr Baker.

The move would be a calculated gamble - in effect tying Mr Bush's hands in foreign policy, the one area where he is deemed more effective than Mr Clinton, and perhaps creating the impression that the President is wholly reliant on Mr Baker's organisational skills for victory.

But, such is the state of the President's campaign, that most of his strategists feel there is little choice.

Both Mr Bush, after his fishing holiday in Wyoming last week with the Secretary of State, and Mr Baker during his trip to the Middle East, have left the door open to a shake-up.

So too, most studiously, did White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater at his regular daily briefing yesterday.

There are other signs, too, which might portend change. Unusually, deputy State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, as well as Margaret Tutwiler, is accompanying Mr Baker to the Middle East, suggesting he is being groomed to take over should Ms Tutwiler, a long time assistant, go with Mr Baker to aid the re-election effort.

The logistics of any such move remain unclear. In 1988 Mr Baker quit as Treasury Secretary to head Mr Bush's campaign. If he takes on similar duties this time, his deputy, Lawrence Eagleburger, could become acting Secretary of State on an interim basis.

But if he takes a formal post - say White House Chief of Staff or a domestic cabinet job - a replacement would have to be named.

There is still talk, moreover, of Vice-President Dan Quayle being dropped from the Republican ticket should Mr Bush's popularity fail to pick up quickly. The odds on this happening are slim but if it did, major changes in the administration would follow, conceivably involving a straight swap between Mr Quayle and either Mr Baker or the Defence Secretary, Dick Cheney.

Meanwhile the Clinton bandwagon, or rather his current barnstorming tour by bus of the Midwest, continues most emphatically to roll.

A new CNN/USA Today poll gives the Arkansas Governor a 22 per cent lead over Mr Bush, a measure of how supporters of the candidate-who-never-quite-was Ross Perot are flocking in droves to Mr Clinton.

By more than two to one, Mr Perot's followers prefer Mr Clinton to the President.

Remarkably, 47 per cent of voters now think the Democrats will win in November, against 37 per cent who foresee a Republican victory. As recently as mid-March, three-quarters of a similar sample believed Mr Bush was a shoo-in.

For its part, Mr Perot's disarray deepens. Erstwhile state organisers failed to come up with a coherent strategy at a weekend meeting in Dallas, while some of his diehard supporters in Florida are filing a 'class-action' lawsuit. They are not seeking financial damages for his withdrawal, but want him compelled to maintain his original promise to run on the ballot on all 50 states if he was given enough support.

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