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President Bush, Jim Baker and Pat Buchanan are in a rowboat that sinks. Who gets saved?

The answer to the joke, now making the rounds in Washington, is: Israel.When the president was told the joke and asked who gets saved, he reportedly provided his own punch line: "Baker."

It was a natural response. James Baker has long been considered a master at saving himself from getting drawn into distasteful political situations, even those involving his old friend Bush.

Salvation and sibling rivalry are the threads that have always run through the 35-year relationship of the president and secretary of state, who are jokingly referred to in some quarters as Bobby and J.R. Ewing, the brothers of "Dallas" fame.

Bush helped save Baker from thinking about his first wife's death, back in Houston in 1969, by getting him involved in politics. Baker reluctantly agreed to give up his job as treasury secretary to run the Bush campaign in 1988 and help save his friend's presidential bid.

Now, with the president wounded and adrift, the question is once again being raised in news reports and political circles: Will Baker have to come in and save Bush?

Baker has apparently been talking about politics with the president. "The president and Baker are always on the phone, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that they are talking about other things than foreign policy," said one top White House aide.

White House officials describe the president as "very miserable" and "irritated" by the indecisive and chaotic performance of his political advisers in the White House and in the campaign, and by his inability to get ahead of the political curve.

The president himself shows no sign of craving Baker's return to the campaign, say aides. Bush is not frightened about his chances of being re-elected.

He is "chagrined," as one Bush intimate put it, about the political advice he has been getting, and the thin-skinned president is upset with the Republican voters who have turned on him, when he was expecting a coronation, not a crucifixion from the right and the left.

But whether Baker's return would provide redemption may not be that simple.

In this year when politics trembles with rage and dislocation, when the campaign trail has become the wild earth, when voters are fed up with old boys' clubs and Washington insiders and excessive attention to foreign policy, it is likely to be rough weather for the patrician pals who have relished their years striding the world stage.

"This is a moment in history for the Harris Woffords, the David Dukes, the Jerry Browns, the Pat Buchanans, the Bernie Sanders," said Kevin Phillips, the author and conservative analyst. "George Herbert Walker Bush and James A. Baker III don't get called to the colors by this sort of an unhappy populace."

While he would do anything he could to avoid being drawn back into managing another campaign, Baker understands that his fate is tangled up with Bush's.

So he and friends have been trading calls about what greater role he might play behind the scenes to bring some discipline to a chaotic White House and campaign organization.

After Bush campaign officials dealt with the Buchanan threat by "running around like chickens with their heads cut off," in the words of one top White House official, even the generally apolitical Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser, suggested to Baker and the president that Baker visit the campaign team and try to "settle everyone down." Baker refused, saying he was secretary of state.

"Baker looks over here and is just horrified," said one White House official. "This looks to him like a three-ring circus."

Baker, who is obsessed with shedding his image as a political handler and being remembered as a statesman, dreads the thought of returning to the circus, his friends say.

He keeps his public distance from the campaign team of Robert M. Teeter, Frederick Malek and Samuel K. Skinner, the White House chief of staff, who have been criticized inside the White House and in Republican circles for their inability to make decisions and bring consistency and substance to the campaign.

"You can judge what Baker doesn't think will work by what he stays away from," Phillips said. "His picture hasn't been seen posing with Skinner, Teeter and Malek. That would be a portrait of Machiavelli and the Three Dwarfs."

There is a division of opinion in the White House about the prospects of the Democrats. Some Bush officials feel confident about the disarray in the Democratic field and predict that Bill Clinton will either self-destruct on the character issues or fall prey to Republican attacks tarring him as a weak executive and a liberal.

Others, including the unlikely alliance of Baker and Vice President Dan Quayle, have a healthy respect for the Arkansas governor's political skills and an appreciation for the volcanic nature of this political season.

Everyone at the White House these days seems to have an opinion about whether Baker would ever come back to run the campaign. The overwhelming majority side with the Baker friend who has been talking to the secretary of state recently about it and says, "I would bet you $10,000 to $500 it won't happen."

Others say, though, that if the campaign goes into "meltdown," as one administration official put it, in the general election campaign, Bush will have to swallow his pride and ask Baker to take the helm.