Crisis No. 1: Reagan campaign director Ed Rollins slinks back to his office after a breakfast with 25 reporters and informs his executive assistant, Michele Davis, that he has let drop the comment that Geraldine Ferraro could "become the biggest bust politically in history." He figures that White House chief of staff James A. Baker III will kill him. "I can't believe I did this," he says. Davis does the only sensible thing under the circumstances. She calls Margaret Tutwiler, the deputy assistant to the president for political affairs and, more important, Baker's former executive assistant and still his indispensable early warning system. How does Tutwiler handle the time bomb?

First, she bursts out laughing.

When she recovers, she assumes her usual staccato. "These things happen," she tells Davis briskly. "You calm Ed down -- I'll get Baker covered." Tutwiler immediately calls the chief of staff. "Just to give you a heads up," she says matter-of-factly, "here's what just happened." She says Davis has told her that Rollins meant no harm, that he said it off the top of his head -- a "Freudian slip," as he unfortunately phrased it. The conversation takes one minute. Tutwiler is businesslike, efficient; Baker, distracted by whatever else is crashing on his head that hour, is glad for the warning. Tutwiler has conveyed to him that Rollins feels plenty bad already, and so it's a waste of time for Baker to call him up and yell.

Confrontation avoided.

Margaret Tutwiler is a 33-year-old former Alabama debutante who is, with the exception of Nancy Reagan, the most powerful woman at the White House.

Do you need a mood check on Jim Baker?

Are you wondering who trashed you at the meeting you missed?

Are you desperate for a seat on Air Force One?

Call Margaret Tutwiler. She's the grapevine, the inside track -- the "A" wire.

She is the chief political officer at the White House this year, functioning as the crucial link between the president's staff and the campaign. She is the only person who goes daily to both the 7:30 a.m. meeting at campaign headquarters and to Baker's 8:15 a.m. all-important White House strategy session. She is Baker's unofficial press secretary. She is on all the campaign trips.

She is the only woman who helped prepare the president for the debate, sitting in as a panelist at Saturday's practice session at Camp David. "You all in the press corps seem to think the president did much worse than anybody on our staff thinks," she says. "I was backstage and no one was the least bit bent out of shape, believe me. You show me where Walter Mondale hit a knockout. I don't see it. It's just not there."

She is direct, aggressive, obsessive about detail. On a good day she'll make and take 300 calls, picking up her direct line from Baker with an impatient, "Yeah?"

She is one of the few single young women at the White House with any influence at all, and like anyone else, struggles with the questions of how she'll ever manage both a career and a family. It can't be any easier trying to find answers in an environment hardly known for its sensitivity toward women.

"When I was 24 years old and in the Gerald Ford campaign here in Washington," she says, "I observed a number of women who were in their forties and fifties. They were extremely competent, wonderful people. But they had nothing, other than their scrapbooks and a lot of miles on their backs. They had given everything to the system. And the system does not basically give back, other than wonderful challenges and experiences.

"I don't want to be one of those women. Unfortunately, I have not been able to figure out how you have it all . . . [Presidential assistant] Dick Darman goes home every night and somebody has gone to the grocery store for him, somebody has taken his clothes to the cleaner's, somebody has cooked his dinner. I could never be married and have this job."

Not surprisingly, working in a man's world seems to have radicalized a woman who otherwise might have thought reality was the Birmingham Junior League. "When I first walked into the Reagan-Bush headquarters in Arlington in 1980," she says, "I had never run into such a group of chauvinistic people in my life. It was like I was invisible."

She is a strong-willed pro-choice advocate, and has subtly influenced a White House with gender gap problems. The day after Geraldine Ferraro made history as Walter Mondale's running mate, while the men at Baker's 8:15 a.m. strategy meeting were wondering what to do, it was Tutwiler who spoke up first.

"The worst thing that any of us can do is make just one snide comment," she said, foreshadowing Rollins' remark. "If we do, it'll all blow up in our faces. Let's take the high road." With the exception of an early blunder, when Ronald Reagan suggested that Mondale's choice smacked of "tokenism" and "cynical symbolism," they did. Without Tutwiler's insistence, says Baker, "we might not have."

She is tall and pretty, with brown hair and blond streaks, an elegant Lord & Taylor look, and campaign trail circles under her eyes. "It takes until noon for them to open up," she says in her sharp Birmingham accent. She wears feminine clothes, favoring expensive, bright-colored silk dresses with matching high heels. The men in the inner circle say they see her as just one of the guys. "I don't view Margaret as a woman," says Bill Henkel, who runs the office that plans presidential trips. "I don't think it ever crosses my mind."

She is the only woman they've allowed in, one they see as extremely good at what she does, a woman who can talk the political lingo -- "behind the curve," "out of the loop" -- as fast as the best of them, a discreet, loyal and well-off southerner who is the product of two of Birmingham's oldest families, the Tutwilers and the DeBardelebens. When her parents married it was not so much a wedding as the merging of two coal and iron fortunes. She exudes the security of knowing that this White House isn't her only shot in life, and in that way, she's not threatening.

But in an administration where you can't tell one button-down overachiever from another, Tutwiler stands out as a real character. "I wouldn't know him from Adam's house cat," is a favorite expression, as is, "It's a done deal, honey." She serves Kool-Aid in Waterford crystal at her Northwest Washington town house, needlepoints without embarrassment in the back of the hall during presidential speeches, says blithely about high school, "I'm sure I flunked some courses, I just don't remember which ones," and will admit that despite her political savvy there are pockets of ignorance. She once expressed surprise about the ethnic background of Frank Donatelli, a White House aide. "Donatelli's Italian?" she asked, amazed.

She never calls Jim Baker anything but "Misterbaker," always pronounced as one rapid word. She swears she has never once said "Jim," and when colleagues tell her that's really weird, she just says, "It's southern, and that's the way I was brought up." She was raised, she likes to say, as her "father's son," the oldest child of whom much was expected. She gets increasingly wired during her 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. days, and when she's on the phone, will nervously pull tape from her desk dispenser, rub it into a ball between her thumb and forefinger, pitch it into the wastebasket, then repeat. She goes through two rolls a week.

Republican conservatives dislike her as much as they do Baker, saying she's just another pragmatic moderate more interested in her own ambition than the president she serves, and remember how much she criticized Ronald Reagan when she was executive director in Alabama of Gerald Ford's 1976 presidential campaign. "I was 25 years old," she says. "I'm sure I said some ugly things." Conservative Paul Weyrich, who runs the Committee for the Survival for a Free Congress, also complains about her pro-choice stand, saying that "she has every right to speak up, but it's quite another question if the White House ought to have her employed if she speaks up."

Some staffers used to mistake her for a secretary. Now they know better.

"There have been times when I've called Margaret to reinforce an argument I've already made to Jim Baker," says Michael Deaver, the deputy chief of staff. "The great thing is that she'll tell him when he's wrong."

"I learned three years ago that the best way to communicate with Jim is through Margaret," says Lee Atwater, the deputy campaign manager.

"I'll put in a call to Lee," says Bill Henkel, "and I can wait an hour or more to get a call back. So I'll say, 'What the hell' -- and walk over to Margaret's office and say, 'Can you call Lee for me?' When Margaret's calling, it's important. He'll break a meeting for her."

"She won't let Baker, or anybody else, escape the facts as she sees them," says Richard Darman. "It's good to have a voice that forces you to face reality."

She is closer to Baker, her mentor, than anyone else in the White House. "I feel comfortable confiding in her," he says. "Margaret's a very mature person in her relationships with people. If I've enjoyed success in here, she's a major reason." Baker uses her as a sounding board for his "Yes, there are people in this White House who are insensitive to women, but I truly believe that the treatment of women in our administration is no worse than it is in society as a whole . . ." Margaret Tutwiler professional dilemmas, while Tutwiler, having earned the respect and trust of a man who trusts very few people, can break through his shield of caution and say things to him that no one else dares.

"Baseball commissioner!" she yelled when Baker was thinking seriously about taking that offer and leaving the White House. "What kind of a nothing job is that? You don't even know anything about baseball."

Another time, when Baker was sitting around complaining in his office about a problem staffer, Tutwiler, exasperated, finally said, "Get rid of him! Get rid of him!" Baker never did -- "Margaret would like to see a world where anybody who steps out of line gets fired," he says -- a fact which has made Tutwiler complain that Baker too often defers decisions and is soft on the staff. And yet, Baker is one of the most powerful White House chiefs of staff in recent history. His success is in part because of his ability to accommodate the conflicting forces that roil through the White House. Tutwiler gets frustrated with the boss she calls "Mr. Caution."

"He's a man who cares a great deal about being liked," she says. "A lot of times, he'll say, 'Margaret, will you please go tell so-and-so they screwed up.' And I'll say, 'You're 54 years old. Why can't you?' " She sighs. "But a lot of times I'll do it."

Earlier this year, a former White House staffer sent Tutwiler a book that he thought she might like to give to Baker on his birthday. Tutwiler thought the book was a great idea, and enthusiastically got the staff and the president to autograph it. They presented it to him during Reagan's trip to China. It was titled "The Wimp." Tackling the Issue

Crisis No. 2: Jim Baker is going to the Redskins game as a guest of team owner Jack Kent Cooke, but it's Friday, he can't find his complimentary parking tickets, and his secretary can't find Cooke. At 9 p.m., a White House switchboard operator calls Tutwiler at home, explaining to her that she can't find Baker's secretary and she can't find Cooke, but she has a Mr. Joe Theismann on the line who perhaps can help. How does Tutwiler handle an ego the size of RFK Stadium?

Not especially well.

First, she's annoyed that she's been bothered at home about such trivia, but she goes ahead and explains the problem to Theismann. "Can you help us?" she asks.

"I'm not sure," Theismann says.

Tutwiler becomes impatient. "You do work for Mr. Cooke, don't you?" she asks. "Well, yes, I do," says Theismann.

"Well," says Tutwiler, "what do you do?"

"I'm the quarterback," says Theismann.

This stumps her. "The quarterback?" she says. "Of what?"

"The Washington Redskins," Theismann replies.

"The football team?" she asks, amazed.

"Yeah," he says.

"Well," says Tutwiler, now even more annoyed that she has wasted so much time, "why am I talking to you?"

They gladly say goodbye to each other, then Tutwiler calls Baker at the White House. When he hears the story, he tells her to hang on, switches her to the speaker phone, then asks her to repeat it for the benefit of aides Darman and Fred Fielding, who are with him in his office. "I had no clue who he was," Tutwiler recalls, without embarrassment. "None whatsoever. Although I was sort of blown away when Baker and all of them started rolling on the floor like a bunch of hyenas."

Tutwiler quickly called Theismann back and apologized. "I don't know anything about football," she said, which under the circumstances was an unnecessary statement. "I'm from Alabama. All I know is Bear Bryant and Joe Namath." The Inner Sanctum

It is 11:30 on a Saturday morning, and Tutwiler is sitting cross-legged and barefoot in a big chair in her living room while her cat, General, listens attentively in her lap. The place is decorated with oriental vases, a sterling silver Easter egg basket, her mother's needlepoint pillows, an oil painting of a Paris street scene, Chinese prints and, upstairs in her bedroom, an embroidered white comforter under a big pile of white lace pillows. Much of it she inherited after her mother and father died within five days of each other in 1982.

In her study are autographed photographs of both George Bush and Baker. "To Margaret," says the one from Bush, "with affection, high regard and a lot of friendship." "To Margaret," says the one from Baker, "my trusted adviser, my loyal friend, my right arm, with appreciation and affection, Jim Baker." On her refrigerator is a card her father sent her: "Money isn't everything," it says, "but it sure keeps you in touch with your children."

Tutwiler is considerably more relaxed at home. Here, as the doors let in autumn air from a patio filled with pots of red geraniums, Tutwiler loses a lot of her self-containment, but none of the intensity.

"I'm the first woman in my family who's ever worked," she says. "My mother never worked a day in her life. My grandmother never worked a day in her life." Her social life consists of dinner with people from the office. She also spends time one weekend a month with an old family friend who is vice president of an Alabama coal company. She's known him for 11 years. "It's wonderful," she says. "He's no pressure on me."

Like other women at the White House, she has had to justify to herself -- short of hypocrisy, blind-sightedness or plain ambition -- why she's working for a president opposed to the ERA and abortion, the two big emotional issues of the women's movement. Tutwiler, who doesn't support the ERA, explains it by saying she agrees with the president on the other issues and that "my life and goal is not leading a woman's charge." If the men saw her as "The Libber," she adds, she would lose what effectiveness she has.

"I can't complain about how I've been treated in this White House, and I honestly believe that Ronald Reagan does not have a problem with women," she says. "But there are days when I've just considered throwing in the towel and quitting. It's the little things that can get on your nerves and drive you up the wall." Asked for details, she defers as cautiously as her boss. "There have been times when I've put an embargo on myself internally, when I say, 'I'm not going to care, I'm going to shut my eyes to it.' Yes, there are people in this White House who are insensitive to women, but I truly believe that the treatment of women in our administration is no worse than it is in society as a whole . . .

"On this abortion thing, one of the most disgusting things to me was that there have been two or three meetings in Jim Baker's office, and there was not one woman sitting in that room. I just think it's insensitive." Baker, she says, is "truly nonchauvinistic -- he couldn't give a flip whether I were a woman, a black, a man." But when she complains to him about the abortion meetings, "he just basically tells me to leave him alone -- or shut up."

She rolls her eyes and sighs. Direct Contact

Crisis No. 3: It is 8:30 p.m., the night before a presidential campaign trip to Iowa, and through an oversight, Rep. Jim Leach, the Republican from Davenport, doesn't have a seat on Air Force One. In an election year it always helps to zoom home with the president. The state's entire Republican delegation is already on, and at this hour, there isn't one empty seat. How does Tutwiler handle the mess?

First, she calls William Sittman, Deaver's assistant, at home. Sittman calls Deaver. Sittman calls Tutwiler back and says that maybe Ken Khachigian, the campaign speechwriter, can give up his seat and ride behind on the press plane. Tutwiler calls to check that with campaign director Ed Rollins at home. "Here's the deal," she says, then explains. Rollins says it's okay with him to take Khachigian off the plane, calls him and tells him, then asks him to call Tutwiler. "I'm terribly sorry that this has come up," she tells Khachigian, "but here's the deal." She gives him the new time he has to be at Andrews Air Force Base, and in the meantime has her staff of four call the presidential advance office in Washington, the presidential advance man in Iowa, the military office and the congressional liaison office and, finally, Leach at home. She leaves her office at 10 that night.

Tutwiler is anxious to tell you that she deals in small issues, not large. "I do not have a whit to do with the important stuff that goes on in here," she says. "I couldn't tell you to this minute what the steel decision is. I have never asked to go to a Cabinet Council meeting, and I don't think I'm missing anything by not. I don't think I'm qualified. I don't like to hang around, to be in a meeting just to be there."

When Baker first hired her at the White House, he suggested to both Tutwiler and Deaver that she might become the president's scheduler. Tutwiler didn't want the responsibility or the job, but Baker insisted that she go see Deaver for an interview anyway. Tutwiler went, sat down, looked straight at Deaver, then said, "The only reason I'm talking to you is that Jim Baker wanted me to, and the only reason you're talking to me is because Jim Baker wanted you to, and since I don't really want to be here, and since I don't think you really want me to be here, why don't we just stop this right now?" She said thank you very much, then left. Deaver had never seen anything like it. The Strong Shoulder

Crisis No. 4: Margaret Tutwiler grew up "over the mountain" in Mountain Brook, a Birmingham suburb of huge old homes and country club Republicans who employed nannies and gardeners and raised their daughters to do the same. Can Margaret Tutwiler leave the womb behind?

Maybe, but it won't be easy.

Every other week she swears she's going to hang it all up and go back home, but her friends at the White House say she'll be bored in 20 minutes. Her father, who had known her mother since he was a guest at her third birthday party, had land, real estate and stocks and bonds as well. Temple Tutwiler was a hard-driving entrepreneur who always seemed larger than life to his family; his wife, Margaret Tutwiler, was a lively, gracious southern princess. "Mother was pretty helpless," Tutwiler says.

Not her namesake, who from the start led a life marked by a pattern of rebellions -- however small -- in an isolated world. Her mother had never once prepared a meal, but Tutwiler decided to learn to cook by hanging around the kitchen with the help. "It would blow my mother's mind when I'd make a chocolate pound cake," she recalls. "She'd say, 'Margaret, how on earth do you do that?' "

Her grades were another story. "I just wasn't motivated," she says. "What I basically did through high school was date Woody." Woody was Woody Harrison, "one of the most unbelievably handsome men you have ever seen, you can ask anybody." Her parents didn't like him, thinking he was too wild for their daughter, which made him all the more appealing.

There was also summer camp, trips to Europe and numerous coming-out parties -- including a rebellious counterculture affair, for Birmingham, anyway, that she staged with her best friend, Kacy Ireland. They named it "IT," for Ireland and Tutwiler, and held it in an empty mansion that they decorated with dead roses, burlap tablecloths and naked light bulbs. The bars were in the bathrooms. "My grandmother was a wreck about it," says Tutwiler. "But we wanted people to have fun."

From there she went to the now-defunct Finch College in New York City, the same place where her grandmother had attended tea parties in white gloves, but Tutwiler insists it wasn't a finishing school. "I had to work," she says. There were a lot of expensive phone calls to Woody back home, and since she couldn't ask her parents to subsidize conversations with a boyfriend they didn't like, Tutwiler embarked on another family first: She got a job. She worked at a bakery on Madison Avenue, and short of wrapping 200 pecan pies at Thanksgiving, it wasn't so bad. "Jackie Onassis shopped there," says Tutwiler. "It was neat."

After two years in New York, she missed Woody and her friends, so returned home to the University of Alabama. She majored in political science, but says the school "was a waste of time," and that "Daddy was right, I should never have gone." Upon graduation, her father told her "that my diploma was worth absolutely nothing" and so forced her into five months of secretarial school. "I despised it," she says. For the next four years, she fell into a series of clerical jobs through her family's Republican connections, first as the secretary to the chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, ("I told him I was pretty sure I was a Republican, but that I had never typed a mailable letter in my life"), then on to a receptionist and scheduling spot through Bo Calloway with Gerald Ford's presidential campaign in Washington. When Ford won the nomination, Stuart Spencer, Ford's political director, gave her Alabama.

"We were writing it off," Spencer says. "I felt like it was a roll of the dice -- but she fooled me." By 1979, Tutwiler had decided George Bush was her candidate. Increasingly canny in the art of politics, Tutwiler convinced her father, who was organizing a major Republican fundraiser in Alabama, to invite Bush to speak. He did, Bush came, and Tutwiler put it to him straight: She wanted a job. She became his scheduler, and her hard work impressed Baker, who was Bush's campaign manager and who had first noticed Tutwiler during the Ford days. When Baker was named chief of staff, she went to see him. "Can't I just be, until we figure out what it is, your jack-of-all-trades, your Indian?" she asked.

"I was aware that people who didn't know what I'd done before thought I was Jim Baker's secretary," she says. "That bugged the fire out of me. But I knew if I continued to work with him, I'd be exposed to things I couldn't be exposed to with anybody else. The press was behind the loop. When you all were writing, 'Powerful Meese," I was in there every day. I knew who was making the decisions." Her title was executive assistant to the chief of staff, and she worked in a small White House office near Baker's until last October, when she moved to Nixon's old hideaway suite in the EOB to start her current job.

A little more than a year into the administration, her mother had called to tell her that the doctors had found a spot on her lung. "I remember getting up from my desk," Tutwiler says, "and trying to get to the door of the West Wing composed, and just going over to St. John's Church, and sitting down in the pew and sobbing."

Tutwiler quickly assumed the take-charge style that is its own form of comfort. As her mother's lung cancer worsened, Tutwiler would spend a week of every five in Alabama. "My father was having a very rough time with it," she says. Her younger brother, Temple, and her younger sister, Ann, were not as equipped for a crisis. "It really fell on Margaret's shoulders to carry the family through," says Dr. John Durant, who was the director of the University of Alabama's Cancer Center at the time. "If you wanted something done, you talked to Margaret." When her mother needed to have brain surgery, it was Margaret Tutwiler who made the decision to go ahead -- and then immediately began planning the kind of maneuvering that has served her so well at the White House. "Here's the way we're going to sell this to mother," she told the doctor. "Here's the way you use the word chemotherapy around her. And here's the way we're going to sell this to Daddy."

On a Monday, the same day the doctors told her that there was no more they could do for her mother, her father dropped dead of a heart attack in a field where he was wildcatting for natural gas. "It was killing him to see the person he idolized in life deteriorating before his eyes," Tutwiler says. "In a way, it's a wonderful love story. And that's the way my brother and sister and I have chosen to look at this."

Her father's funeral was on Wednesday, her mother died on Saturday, and then her funeral was on Monday, seven days to the day he died.

"There are no words to describe the amount of hurt and devastation and feeling of loss," she says, unusually slowly. "My whole foundation went up in smoke. My mother wasn't only my mother. She was my best friend. I don't want ever to be hurt like that again -- ever. I've built up some distance and some walls." In Full Voice

Tutwiler isn't sure what she'll do after the election, although she does know that if she stays in Washington she'll have to break away from her mentor. "I'll miss him," she says, "but in this town, you can lose your reputation if people say, 'Well, he just takes care of her, he just takes her wherever he goes.' "

But sometimes it's hard to tell who takes charge of whom. At the Republican convention in Dallas, Tutwiler had Julie Brink, one of her young assistants, prepare Baker's daily schedule, and then had Brink go over it with Baker at a meeting of the three of them. Brink was so nervous about telling the White House chief of staff what to do that her hands were shaking, but Baker was flipping through some briefing material and completely ignoring Brink in her moment of glory.

Tutwiler couldn't take it.

"HEY," she interrupted loudly, "ARE YOU LISTENING TO HER?"

He wasn't, but he did.