The Man Who's Rising As Sununu's Sun Sets

For more than a month, White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu has been running the Washington equivalent of a reverse blood drive. Nameless foes within the Bush Administration have been leaking damaging stories about the staff chief's lavish use of government planes, limos, and security guards. The leaks have left Sununu bleeding from a thousand cuts--and casting a vengeful eye on a host of real and imagined villains.

To hear the wounded bleats of the Sununuites, pollster Robert M. Teeter and a cabal of longtime Bush aides--as well as the liberal press and the pro-Israel lobby--are behind the staff chief's troubles. Most of these conspiracy theories verge on paranoia. But Sununu's suspicion that forces allied with Teeter are trying to elbow him out of the White House may contain a kernel of truth: As Sununu's influence wanes, Teeter's stature as President Bush's premier political adviser is growing. And that power shift will have major implications for the reelection drive Bush runs next year.

Teeter and Sununu were supposed to serve as informal co-directors of the Bush campaign. But the two couldn't be more different. Archconservative Sununu is arrogant, brilliant, and combative. In Bushdom, he's the dark side of the force. Teeter, a soft-spoken moderate, has a passion for the high road and loves to talk about education, housing, and the environment. He's considered the keeper of the "kinder, gentler" Bush.

The two camps are at odds over a fundamental question: Should George Bush run a polarizing campaign that blasts the Democrats for quaking before Saddam Hussein and embracing racial quotas? Or should the President waft through a more elevated reelection drive that stresses his accomplishments while planting the seeds for health care reform, tax credits for child care, and other lofty second-term goals?

Teeter's politics are centrist, rooted in Michigan's moderate GOP tradition. He "believes government has roles and responsibilities," says former polling partner Alex P. Gage. By contrast, Sununu takes his cues from New Hampshire's hard right and shows little interest in an activist second-term agenda that could expand the government's reach.

LEGENDARY COOL. A bespectacled 52-year-old polling whiz from Coldwater, Mich., Teeter almost loses his legendary cool when asked about an anti-Sununu conspiracy. "This is a figment of the press's imagination," he sputters. "John Sununu and I work together all the time, and we will work together next year."

Perhaps. But while Teeter's aversion to intrigue is well known, many of those allied with him are part of the Bush old guard--and share the view that Sununu is a political albatross. This group includes Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher, Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady, and some longtime Bush political aides who chafe under Sununu's domineering style.

Teeter's allies worry that Sununu's penchant for brawling will upset their plans for a Bush coronation. "George Bush is the Lexus of candidates," says one GOP pol. "With a defeated Hitler in the Middle East and the economy coming back, there's no need for a slashing campaign."

If Sununu is driven out of the White House, Teeter would probably emerge as the campaign's chief political guru. He pays maniacal attention to detail and is a compulsive listmaker. But Teeter's real strength is his ability to spot broader social trends, and he is one of the GOP's shrewdest hands. He was a valued outside adviser to Presidents Ford and Reagan alike. "Pound for pound, he's the most experienced strategist in Presidential politics," says GOP tactician Rich Bond.

Teeter's imprint on the 1988 Bush campaign was significant. He persuaded Bush to broaden his appeal by proclaiming his determination to be both the "education President" and the "environmental President." After Bush's victory, Teeter was expected to take a White House post. Instead, he stayed put in Michigan. Teeter didn't want to get sucked into the capital maelstrom. And he felt he could be more valuable to Bush by remaining an outsider. "I get CNN," he says wryly. "What more do I need?" Besides, he can make a lot more money running his polling and marketing business.

That's not to say that Teeter doesn't wield extraordinary clout in Washington. Every week or so, he flies in for a briefing with the President's senior staff. "He has very good judgment, but in a practical way," says Will Feltus, a former polling associate.

The Bush-Teeter alliance was forged in 1979, when Teeter signed on to the candidate's Republican primary duel against Ronald Reagan. During the Reagan years, Teeter was a favorite of then-Chief of Staff Jim Baker, who worried that chief Reagan pollster Richard B. Wirthlin took too sunny a view of things. Says Teeter: "People hire you because they have faith in your taking an independent view and not coloring things with your biases."

Although Teeter opposed Bush's decision to ditch his no-tax vow, his aversion to bare-knuckle politics makes him suspect to the GOP right. "Teeter has the President's complete trust," says conservative activist Paul Weyrich. "But he doesn't understand the emotional intensity of certain issues."

Despite his reputation as a savant, Teeter has made his share of boo-boos. "Bad advice?" he grins. "There's been plenty." Teeter backed Bush's decision to pick Dan Quayle as his running mate, arguing that the little-known Hoosier would lure younger voters.

SKULL SESSIONS. While party pros respect Teeter's judgment, not all of them are in awe of his organizational skills. "Bob is good with his relationships with people, but he's not a good manager," frets one friend. Adds a GOP strategist: "Making decisions for him can be very torturous." But Bush partisans believe those surrounding Teeter will compensate for any weaknesses. The Bush reelection team is likely to include many other seasoned veterans of his 1988 campaign (table, page 132).

Teeter, Sununu, and a small group of Bush aides have already held several informal skull sessions on `92. And despite uncertainty over Sununu's status, no one seems to be breaking into a sweat--not with the onset of the recovery, Bush's 76% approval rating, and the stunning lack of Democratic opposition.

"Most people feel they already know George Bush," says Teeter. "As we get closer to `92, they will see that the Democrats are just trying to inflict political damage." If that sounds like confidence in the election outcome--it is.


In addition to Bob Teeter as chief strategist, here are the managers on deck for the Bush reelection effort

ROBERT MOSBACHER The Commerce Secretary is expected to step down later this year to become chief fund-raiser

FRED MALEK The ex-Nixon aide who was Bush's 1988 convention manager is expected to run day-to-day operations

ROGER AILES Bush's `88 media adviser will be back to handle the President's advertising and themes

CRAIG FULLER The chief of staff for Bush when he was Vice-President will be his convention manager in Houston


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