This is the big one for Lee Atwater, where the dawn of a campaign meets the high noon of a career. He's the chairman of George Bush's political action committee and soon-to-be impresario of the presidential plunge. And in less than three years, at the ripe old age of 38, he'll be known as the man who put Bush in the White House.

Or the man who managed a front-runner into oblivion.

"I'm nervous all the time these days," says Atwater, wringing the blood out of his hands on a flight back from a recent Bush appearance in Nashville. "I mean there's so much I have to think about . . . so much that can go wrong."

Nine hundred thirty-one days to go to the '88 election, and the Bush team is already lurching into place, muddling through crises, dodging political bullets, betting their careers that Bush will be the first vice president elected to succeed his boss since Martin Van Buren followed Andrew Jackson in 1836.

It's been almost a year now since Bush summoned Atwater and three other key advisers to his summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine, for the opening strategy session of what promises to be the longest presidential campaign in history. The others were Craig Fuller, the vice president's chief of staff; pollster Robert Teeter; and Nicholas Brady, a Wall Street financier and old Yale friend of Bush's. The three-day meeting "was very low-key," says one, full of long walks and even longer talks. "We talked about the role of the political action committee . . . We just wanted to get through '86 in one piece."

Easier said than done, as it turned out. George Bush has generated more than a campaign's worth of flak already -- and it's only April.

Seeking to nail down conservative support, he drew fire for pandering to his party's extreme right. Lashing out at potential Democratic rival Mario Cuomo last January, he ended up sounding illogical and shrill -- provoking a vitriolic column by George Will, who called the vice president a "lap dog." And two weeks ago, with an opportunity to look presidential on a Mideast trip, he committed a major gaffe by fretting publicly about the need for higher prices on oil. Not a popular position in wintry Michigan, Iowa and New Hampshire, as Bush's aides might be expected to know -- and it also raises questions about his independence from Texas oil industry supporters.

"It's been devastating," says Paul Gadola, who was Michigan's Reagan-Bush chairman in 1984 and is as yet uncommitted for 1988. "High oil prices have gravely hurt this state economically . . . and in my opinion the remark is going to have a serious and negative effect here as far as Bush is concerned."

Says James Johnson, Walter Mondale's 1984 campaign manager, who should know a thing or two about the problems of handling a front-running candidate: "Whoever in Bush's organization allowed the last three months to occur should be held accountable."

Atwater and Fuller in particular -- the pups of the 1980 campaign, who came into their own with the blessing of veterans Jim Baker and Mike Deaver -- are finding that it's windy at the top. Old-line Bush supporters have accused Atwater of pushing their man too far to the right, and Fuller of blocking their access. Over the Christmas holiday, Houston oil executive and 30-year Bush friend Robert Mosbacher flew down to Nicholas Brady's Nassau retreat to confront the vacationing vice president about what Mosbacher called "problems" with the staff -- the specific problem being that Fuller wasn't returning calls to Bush loyalists.

"I'd say there were a few rough spots that needed to be worked on, and I'm fairly direct in my comments," says Mosbacher. "I was just anxious that the staff be conscientious and sensitive to people who have been helpful to Bush."

Young, new to Bush and seemingly without a clear line of command, the Atwater-Fuller team has its work cut out for it. George Bush may lead the pack in the early polls, but as a candidate he presents some thorny problems for his advisers -- problems that, if not overcome, could make his recent troubles look minor by comparison:

Press Relations: Bush has a hostile relationship with the national news media, which surfaced most astonishingly in the George Will column. Will, who ordinarily trains his ire on targets well to the left of the vice president, used words like "demagoguery" and "gibberish" and cited a 1984 Washington Post editorial that called Bush "the Cliff Barnes of American politics."

During the 1984 race, with Bush in the difficult position of running against the first woman vice presidential nominee, reporters had a field day with Barbara Bush's reference to Geraldine Ferraro as a "$4 million -- I can't say it, but it rhymes with rich." And "Doonesbury" immortalized him in October 1984 as a candidate who had to place his "embattled manhood in a blind trust." By the end of the campaign, Bush's then press secretary Peter Teeley was barely talking to the traveling press, giving briefings only to local media (the national press got to send a pool reporter).

"The last time we spoke I told [Bush] that he had to work on developing a relationship with the press," says Ed Rollins, director of Reagan-Bush '84 and now a political consultant. "I said, 'It's crazy for you to run all over the country and build up support -- and here, these guys don't like you.' I said, 'They are not going to give you the benefit of the doubt.' "

For a veteran politician, the vice president still seems unusually sensitive to any kind of press criticism. At a recent White House dinner, guests overheard Bush tell Fairchild Publications writer Susan Watters that a rather benign story she had done on him for M magazine "stunk" and had "helped the opposition."

Delegating Authority: As a candidate, Bush has a history of stubbornly managing himself.

"From the standpoint of any kind of campaign, George Bush doesn't listen very well," says David Keene, political director for Bush's 1980 race who is now working for potential Bush rival Robert Dole. "He's much more inclined to listen to his old friends like Jim Baker . . . He has too much confidence in his own judgments. He has a low regard for political operatives."

In January, for example, rejecting staff advice, he insisted on appearing before the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty Federation, praising Falwell for his "moral vision." The speech helped shape an image of Bush as a kind of Walter Mondale of the right, a man who would embrace anyone for a vote.

Bush's insistence on running his own show can create indecisiveness and confusion among his advisers. "There isn't a single person in charge over there," says John Sears, who managed Reagan's 1980 campaign before he was fired from the job. "Everyone is reporting to George and you can't do it that way."

An interesting case in point is the way a potential interview for this story was handled. In January, press secretary Marlin Fitzwater offered an interview with the vice president. When a time was later requested, Fitzwater arranged it. He called on a Monday and scheduled it for Friday.

On Friday, three hours before the interview, chief of staff Fuller canceled it, saying he and the vice president were "uncomfortable" with the subject matter, which was his staff. A few hours later Fuller said he (Fuller) was now "comfortable" and so he would speak to Bush about an interview the following week.

On Saturday morning, Atwater said he had spoken to the vice president the day before and Bush had agreed to the interview.

On Monday, Fitzwater called and said there would be no interview, explaining that the staff was "unanimously" for it, but that Bush had disagreed. On Monday night, Atwater said he was sure there would be an interview, and would talk to Bush about it.

On Tuesday everyone said the interview was off.

The Baker Factor: How do you run a campaign with a 900-pound political gorilla looking over your shoulder? The influence that Treasury Secretary James Baker -- a Texas friend of Bush's and manager of his 1980 race -- will have on the candidate is incalculable. Baker is understandably sensitive to the suggestion that he is actually running the campaign from Treasury, but he does meet regularly with Atwater, Fuller and Teeter -- separately and as a group.

A few weeks ago, he dined privately with Bush, Atwater, Fuller and Teeter at the vice president's house. "He's got more clout than anyone," says Atwater, "but he's not calling the shots day to day."

The Front-Runner Syndrome: Bush comes to the presidential race with some tremendous advantages -- his office, broad experience, name recognition, ability to raise funds and identification with an unusually popular president (though this last can be a problem as well, making it hard for him to be seen as his own man). But some political observers predict that his decision to capitalize aggressively on his front-runner position can only help opponents by making Bush more susceptible to gaffes.

"The idea is for the front-runner to avoid mistakes," says Washington attorney John McEvoy, who worked for Ed Muskie in the 1972 race and helped run Gary Hart's campaign in 1984. "These guys seem to have gotten it backwards. Every time Bush steps off a sidewalk, he steps in it."

Last month, a Harris poll showed that Bush -- who was the first choice of 38 percent of GOP voters one year ago -- had slipped to 29 percent this year. "We're real pleased to have George Bush and his guys out there," says Don Devine, a Dole adviser. "How many horse races do you see where the first horse out wins the race?"

"The point," says Atwater, "is that there's not a single move George Bush can make these days that he won't be criticized for in some quarter . . . That's just a fact."

And in the world of political pros, the same can be said about Atwater, Fuller, Teeter and Brady. Below and on the following page: a look at four men who'll be on the front lines of the '88 war.