If all had gone according to plan, the National would be invading the Washington area about now with a huge burst of publicity and a team of 10 reporters to match the local papers step for step in covering the Redskins, Orioles, Bullets, Capitals and assorted college teams.

But that was before the 10-month-old sports newspaper dropped its Sunday edition, laid off 10 percent of its staff, fired three top executives and all but abandoned the idea of local coverage. Now the paper will tiptoe into the Washington-Baltimore market Dec. 5 with just one reporter and a columnist. They will work out of their homes.

The Redskins might be featured on a Monday cover, but Washingtonians will be seeing the same stories and box scores as readers in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Boston, Dallas and Miami -- except for the next to last page, which is local.

"People felt they were getting enough local sports from their local papers and what they liked about us were things that were national," says National Bureau Chief Peter Alfano. He says the National learned the hard way that "there just weren't enough hours in the day" to print separate editions in each city.

The color tabloid initially made a big splash by luring some big-name sportswriters with $200,000-plus salaries. But the paper quickly busted its budget and ran into advertising and distribution problems on Sundays, leaving it with no presence on weekends, the busiest time for sports.

"I'm watching their financial troubles and wondering how long they'll be able to sustain the effort," says Gene Policinski, USA Today's managing editor for sports. "They're obviously scrambling to find a formula that can work."

But Alfano says Mexican media mogul Emilio Azcarraga made a $100 million commitment in launching the paper and that no one expected it to turn a profit for the first four years.

The 50-cent paper, which claims a circulation of 275,000, hopes to add another 25,000 with the D.C. edition. Local fans may recognize the bylines of several Washington Post alumni, including columnist Dave Kindred, college basketball writer John Feinstein and sports television reporter Norman Chad.

"We realize there are obstacles," Alfano says. "But we believe the concept is right. The passion for sports hasn't abated. Even in a recession, people spend money on escapism. We have to do a better job of marketing."

Bush's Byline

Newsweek, which touts itself as a purveyor of "unconventional wisdom," got precious little of that this week in publishing an "exclusive" essay by President Bush on the Persian Gulf crisis.

The heavily promoted, two-page article "by George Bush" seemed a rehash of past White House pronouncements -- energy supplies must be protected, Saddam Hussein's aggression cannot be rewarded, innocent lives are at stake.

"If the rhetorical style is something less than Churchillian, the president advances a sturdy rationale for U.S. intervention," the accompanying article says, even while acknowledging that it is "the same argument Bush has tried to articulate for the past 15 weeks."

Newsweek Editor in Chief Richard M. Smith says the magazine unsuccessfully sought an interview with Bush before asking him for an essay instead. "It seemed to us that to get a piece like this would help clarify what the White House felt were the most important arguments for the buildup," Smith says. "Obviously there were some themes in it that had been sounded before. It's a bit much to expect that 3 1/2 months into this operation, suddenly there would be a brand new rationale for what we were doing."

Could Newsweek's "exclusive" have been the work of an anonymous speech writer? An administration official says Bush "had a lot of involvement, more than with a normal speech," although White House national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and National Security Council staffers also worked on it. Says Smith: "I don't know whether it passed through any other hands before it got to us."

Others are more skeptical. "I certainly don't fault the president for trying to use the bully pulpit, but I'm surprised Newsweek built it for him," says Democratic strategist Mike McCurry. "I find it hard to believe he sat down and batted it out at the typewriter."

Recession Watch

Regardie's magazine, which grew fat with real estate advertising during the '80s, is suddenly limping into the '90s. Owner Bill Regardie told employees last week he is cutting their salaries by 10 percent and will no longer pay for parking.

Regardie, who recently fired a dozen staffers at the magazine and two related companies, says he acted to avoid further layoffs. "They've been paid well in the good years and now it's time to tighten the belts," he says.

With ad pages having dropped from 1,900 to 1,400, Regardie's expects to finish the year in the red. "The gulf crisis knocked everyone in real estate down the tubes," the owner says. While the November issue is a sizable 224 pages, that's far slimmer than the editions that nearly topped 400 pages a couple of years ago.

The boss says he's cutting his own pay by more than 10 percent and making other sacrifices. "I'd love to buy a new car, but I can't because of the message it would send," says Regardie, who is stuck driving a 1987 Mercedes.

"I'd like to say things are great, but anyone who says that is not being honest. For the first time in my business career, I'm scared -- that's SCARED, in all caps."

Hands Off

With the New York Daily News strike in its fourth turbulent week, local news organizations are quickly snatching up the best of the striking reporters -- all except the New York Times, which is taking a hands-off approach.

The paper of record has decided not to hire any strikers, from star sportswriters to pressmen and drivers, "because we don't want to be seen as contributing to the demise of the News," one editor says. This has left some applicants wondering whether to accept other offers or wait to see if the Tribune Co., which has lost advertising as it struggles to get the paper to newsstands, decides to fold the tabloid.

For the record, Times Assistant Managing Editor Carolyn Lee says there is no formal policy and that no News staffers have been hired because "we're not in an aggressive hiring mode."

Other competitors have not hesitated to skim off the cream. The New York Post has hired columnist Mike McAlary, Newsday has picked up reporter Kevin McCoy and the weekly New York Observer has landed investigator Jack Newfield. City Hall Bureau Chief Marcia Kramer has signed with WCBS-TV.

Some Timesfolk say the News's star performers -- bombastic columnists and just-the-facts crime reporters -- don't quite fit their loftier format. "Maybe there are one or two people on their staff that we were dying to get," an insider says. "When you look at a re'sume', it's rare that you get a really good 1,500-word piece because they don't exist over there. Copy editing there is not what we consider to be copy editing."