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"What is going on down there in that White House?" a radio talk show host asked President Clinton as he opened an interview.

That was a few weeks - and several catastrophes - ago.After the ill-fated nomination of Lani Guinier as chief civil-rights enforcer, much of the country wants to ask him the same thing.

Twenty weeks old, the Clinton presidency is setting records as the most mistake-prone in modern history. The administration's "shakedown cruise," as Vice President Al Gore called it Thursday night, is beginning to look like the maiden voyage of the Titanic.

White House officials said the staff, target of mounting criticism, was bracing for a shakeup as early as next week. Others focused on Clinton himself, with critics and friends alike asking if he has core beliefs and a mission for his presidency.

Shifting into a "let's put this behind us" mode, the battered administration pinned comeback hopes on making news that will overtake the Guinier furor.

The president dumped his travel plans for next week to concentrate on a sorely needed victory for his economic program in the Senate and the selection of a Supreme Court nominee.

Clinton spent a rare day with no public appearances Friday. The White House launched a search for a replacement for Guinier to calm a civil-rights community that was charging betrayal.

Although Clinton has bounced back from political disaster countless times in the past, weeks of gaffes and giving way to pressure have eroded his credibility with Congress and the public.

"There's been nothing quite comparable to this in modern history," said Allan J. Lichtman, political historian at American University.Poll figures tell only part of the story, but they are dramatic enough. Clinton plunged to a mere 37 percent favorability in polls this week. No other recent president dipped below the high 50s at this point. President Bush scored 70 percent.

More important, said Lichtman, is the "depth of public disillusionment" that has enveloped the Clinton White House as he slips and slides from one position to another. That raises a fundamental problem that can't be patched up with the arrival Monday of new presidential counselor David Gergen, the seasoned White House aide and veteran of three Republican administrations.

"This is a presidency that hasn't defined itself," said Lichtman. "If the president can't define himself and his administration, the staff can't make up for that."

As one measure of growing concern, the normally tough partisan House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich declared he felt no "partisan glee" in watching developments at the White House.

"I'm very worried," said the Georgia lawmaker. "The world is too dangerous. We can't afford another failed presidency."