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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Baker 'Right Choice' for Bush Team

Politics: Termed the 'cavalry coming in,' he and the governor seem to have smoothed former friction.

November 14, 2000|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — He is in front of the cameras again, with cool confidence and patrician tone, arguing for the Bush family interests just as he has done for three decades.

Yet James A. Baker III's role as chief advocate for the Bush campaign in Florida has also surprised some Republican insiders: There was friction, after all, between the former secretary of State and Texas Gov. George W. Bush the last time a Bush presidency was on the line.

Like his mother, Bush thought that Baker's reluctance to join the losing campaign of his father, President Bush, until the last three months of the 1992 race may have cost the effort dearly. And the younger Bush, who was then pushing his father's campaign to fight harder, has not always kept his views hidden in the intervening years.

Yet Republican aides insisted that Baker's late appearance on the Bush bandwagon last week does not signify any lingering hard feelings. Rather, they said, it signals the campaign's determination to try to avoid perceptions that the new presidency would be a restoration of the old, with a man once called the "deputy president" pulling the strings from behind the scenes.

Keeping Baker's visibility "as low as possible was for the best, they thought," said one former campaign aide to President Bush, who asked to remain unidentified. But on Wednesday, when Vice President Al Gore's campaign chose former Secretary of State Warren Christopher to spearhead its team in Florida, "it looked like [Baker] was the right choice and one no sensible person could criticize."

Baker has lawyerly skill, he has gravitas and he has public trust.

"He represents the cavalry coming in," said Rich Bond, who was chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 1992 Bush campaign. "They've got a smart team, but they need more bodies."

Yet because of the memory of 1992, GOP reaction to Baker's latest reappearance has not been entirely unmixed.

William Kristol, who was chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle and is now editor of the Weekly Standard magazine, said that many Republicans are glad to have the Florida electoral issues managed by the Texas superlawyer, who they know to be "smart and tough."

But others remember that in 1992, Baker was hesitant to give up his job as secretary of State to get his hands dirty in a national political campaign for the fifth time. "They say: 'Will he throw himself into this with his heart and soul?' " Kristol said.

When the Bush campaign was being organized in early 1999, aides made a calculation that they should leave out the biggest names from the Bush administration, to avoid the perception that this was Bush II.

They did not hesitate to enlist former National Security Council aide Condoleezza Rice, economist Larry Lindsey and former State Department official Robert B. Zoellick. But they kept Baker's name out of the mix and did not enlist him when they put together their foreign policy advisory committee to the GOP candidate.

Baker, for his part, opposed the idea of taking any visible role "because he thought it didn't look good," said one Republican official.

Baker has helped out quietly with fund-raising in Texas, California and Alabama. And there was "no reluctance on his part" to plunge into the job of taking over the legal team in Florida. Baker was on a plane soon after Gov. Bush called him last Wednesday.

Since his arrival in Florida, Baker has been joined in Tallahassee by Margaret Tutwiler and Zoellick, who were two of his top four aides during his years at the State Department.

Baker, 70, also has declared that he has "no interest in working in the next administration," the official asserted.

The official also sought to firmly dispel any notion of tension between Baker and Gov. Bush. "It's just not there. It doesn't exist," the official said.

Baker has been a close partner to former President Bush since the two won a tennis doubles tournament together in Houston in 1970. He managed the former president's failed 1980 campaign for president, his vice presidential campaigns and his successful 1988 presidential campaign against Democratic Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.

Yet Baker came to greatly prefer his role as statesman.

During the Bush years in the White House, he handled Middle East peace negotiations, bringing the Israelis and Palestinians together for face-to-face talks in 1991. He helped cobble together the international alliance that faced Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 1990 and 1991.

And he presided over the reshaping of U.S. foreign policy at the end of the Cold War.

Despite his reluctance to step back into the grit and contention of politics, some observers believe Baker may find secret satisfaction in hearing the call to battle once more.

Times staff writer Doyle McManus contributed to this story.

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