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LAUGHTER AROUND D.C. HAS NERVOUS EDGE TO IT

The continuing travel saga of President Bush's chief of staff, John Sununu, has made him an object of ridicule on Capitol Hill and provided rich fodder for humorists. But the laughter at the White House is strained.

NBC's Jay Leno joked that Bush started jogging again because Sununu had the car. Syndicated columnist Art Buchwald suggested farcically that Sununu tried to line up the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal for a fishing trip to the Florida Keys.Amateur comedians are having a field day as well. House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., suggested that Congress appropriate funds to buy Sununu a bicycle.

And Senate Republican leader Bob Dole poked fun of Sununu's air travel by suggesting that when he comes to congressional hearings he wants "a window seat."

But Sununu, who earlier joked that "Sununu has had more flights than the Iraqi air force," hasn't been nearly so glib lately after disclosures about his use of a chauffeur-driven limousine and solicitations of corporate jets.

And his boss - who once happily likened Sununu to a bull in a china shop - hasn't found much in the situation to joke about either.

Bush's most recent defense of his embattled chief of staff was less than a ringing endorsement. "Yeah, I'm going to support him," Bush told reporters earlier this week.

Still, Bush, and later his spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, made it clear that Sununu's job was safe, at least for the time being.

One White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the recognition that Bush was committed to keeping Sununu has had a stifling effect on jokes at Sununu's expense.

"I can't understand why anyone would want to make jokes about him. He's vicious and he's tough and he'll be around for at least another year and a half," the official said.

That's not to say there isn't a lot of snickering going on at the White House and in Congress.

But being laughed at is not the best of situations for a presidential chief of staff, or for one seeking to cultivate an image of being a hard-nosed negotiator like he did during last year's budget talks with Congress.

And Sununu has not built his reputation on being good-natured.

Some recent humor about Sun-unu among Republicans has a nervous edge.

For instance, Jack Kemp, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, defended Sununu to a group of reporters on Monday in Arlington, Va., where he and Sun-unu had given speeches to a business group.

But Kemp made clear that, while Sununu had taken a government limousine to the event, Kemp had not. "Yes, this is my car," Kemp said. "I drove all the way in from Bethesda," a Maryland suburb about 10 miles distant.

Fitzwater's daily White House press briefings lately have been dominated by questions on Sun-unu. At one point at a recent briefing, a reporter who specializes on economic issues asked if she could change the subject.

Fitzwater beamed with relief. He told Kathleen Tanzy of Futures World News that he was even willing to take a question on the U.S. dollar - always a verboten topic at White House briefings.

A few days later the same reporter tried to slip another one by, asking Fitzwater if the White House was satisfied with "the current mix of policies" in light of "the strong dollar."

"Today's briefing is not that bad, Kathleen," Fitzwater said. "I have no comment on the dollar."