For Craig L. Fuller, November 8, 1988, should have been a day of undiluted celebration. Since 1985, the amiable Fuller had toiled as George Bush's chief of staff. He had trekked around the world, parried reporters, lobbyists and advisers and helped shepherd candidate Bush through the hectic campaign. With the exception of Barbara Bush, Fuller was often the first person to talk to the vice president after he awoke and the last to talk to him before he went to sleep. With the Republican ticket heading toward victory, most observers thought the 37-year-old Fuller was heading for a post in the new Bush White House.

Instead, just before Bush went off to cast his own vote that day in Houston, the vice president told Fuller that he had decided to name New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu as White House chief of staff. Earlier, somewhere between the Illinois and Califor- nia primaries, Fuller had told Bush that the chief of staff job was the only post he wanted if Bush won the election. Now, in the living room of the Houstonian Hotel suite that Bush uses as his voting residence, Bush asked Fuller if he had really meant that or whether he would consider another position in the administration.

Fuller said he had meant it.

And so, with a groan, a whoosh and a gust of cool air, the great revolving door between government and business began to swing around again.

The next day, Fuller began his job as co-director of the transition team for an administration he would not join. When the appointment of Sununu became public, the unflappable Fuller proclaimed that he was delighted and was looking forward to returning to the private sector, which he had left in 1981 when he joined the Reagan administration. Not many people believed him. He repeated the answer so often that one cartoon depicted a reporter strangling Fuller, who just kept on saying, "I am delighted . . ."

Nearly four years later, it looks as though Fuller had good reason to be delighted. He has parlayed his connections to Bush and his insider's knowledge of Washington into three highly paid positions in "public affairs" -- a job description that belies the extent to which its practitioners deal with the private affairs of wealthy individuals, corporations and foreign governments. Now director of corporate affairs for the Philip Morris Cos., which has the Rolls-Royce of public affairs programs, Fuller is said to earn around half a million dollars a year. That's 2 1/2 times the salary of the president of the republic and four times what the hapless Sununu was making when he resigned under fire in December 1991. And that sum does not include potentially lucrative stock options.

While Sununu was getting into trouble for riding military planes home to New Hampshire, Fuller was piloting his own single-engine Cessna to weekend destinations such as the Eastern Shore and Nantucket. As Sununu's embattled successor, Sam Skinner, trudges after the president, Fuller shuttles between his home in McLean and a Philip Morris apartment in Manhattan, opposite Central Park. While White House staffers try to soothe cranky voters by giving up their chauffeur privileges, no one pays any attention as Fuller whisks through the security turnstiles at Philip Morris headquarters and climbs into the back seat of a chauffeur-driven car that ferries him around New York.

Whoosh.

"I had a very strong conviction that personally, the best thing would be to leave the White House," Fuller says now. His style was different from Sununu's, and he didn't see a role for himself. He had spent eight years in the White House cocoon, and frankly, he says, he was a little tired. In 1985, he had gotten married for the second time, to Karen Hart, who worked for Pat Buchanan when Buchanan was Reagan's communications director. "I thought it would be nice to have a life that wasn't so totally dedicated to serving the president," Fuller says. That might have sounded like a rationalization in 1988. But four years later, no one doubts him when he says, "It's worked out great." Fuller's exile from the administration has not exactly been a distant one. He remains chummy with several old colleagues such as Bush budget director Richard G. Darman, and Fuller frequently visits the White House and the Old Executive Office Building to discuss political strategy. For several months he was part of a regular Wednesday afternoon political rap session held by a handful of top White House staffers. This month he is serving as chairman of the Republican National Convention.

"Craig is still in the game," says Ed Rogers, former deputy chief of staff for Bush. "If you put together a list of the top 10 unelected Republicans in Washington, he'd be one of them." But the real question about Craig Fuller isn't whether he's still a player. It's this: Whose team is he playing for at any given time?

FULLER'S EXIT from the Bush inner circle to the world of public affairs is certainly not the first time that the revolving door has transformed a favorite son from semi-anonymous staff member to corporate muckety-muck, from someone who carries other people's briefcases to someone who carries his own.

During the Bush administration, however, the revolving door has been more of an open door. Fuller is only one of several top Republican consultants who keep one foot in the world of paying clients and one foot in the White House inner circle. Like James Lake, Robert Teeter, Charles Black, Fred Malek and Sheila Tate, all of whom regularly take part in White House strategy sessions, Fuller passes freely between the two worlds. Before joining Philip Morris, for example, he had represented clients ranging from China and Kuwait to Arco and the insurance industry -- all with big stakes in the outcomes of U.S. policy debates.

Fuller says he sees no conflict of interest between his different roles. Instead, he argues, there is a common thread between strategy sessions at the White House and the work he has done for paying clients or employers, and it is his skills, not his contacts, that he brings to the table. Some people make furniture; Fuller makes images. Some people write computer programs; Fuller writes memos. Some people teach students about business administration; Fuller teaches businesses about the Bush administration. Besides, he argues, American business needs the skills of the political world. Remaking the public image of the vice president is not that much different from remaking the image of the auto insurance industry. Teaching Americans about a candidate resembles teaching them about Kuwait. And managing the White House paper flow is good practice for guiding the nation's biggest food and tobacco conglomerate through the myriad government agencies that regulate its products.

"New Yorkers come down here and say, 'What is it you do?' " says Nancy Clark Reynolds, a veteran Republican public affairs specialist and former partner of Fuller's. "We try to come up with strategies and advice on how to win in Washington, how to deal with government and come to some sort of satisfactory conclusion."

"Anybody who comes out of government experience has an understanding of how things get done in this town," Fuller says. "Sometimes public policy issues have enormous consequences on people or their companies." Just as companies hire investment bankers or advertising firms, he says, "people seek advice because you have perspective on how decisions get made."

A bevy of companies and consulting firms came courting Fuller in early 1989, and it's safe to say that not one was ignorant of his ties to the new president. But the notion that they wanted him for some larger skill, and not just for his connections, helps Fuller nurture the hope that his star will keep rising even after the Bush administration passes from the political firmament. "I don't spend a lot of time making grandiose plans," he says. But he cites as models former secretary of state George P. Shultz and former defense secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, who left the Nixon and Ford administrations, respectively, to become Bechtel Corp. executives before shuttling back to Washington to join the Reagan Cabinet. "When they came back to government, they were stronger for having both public- and private-sector experience. If I look at people, they are the most interesting models. People who really impressed me."

The comparison is an uncharacteristic lapse of humility for Fuller, and it is telling about the state of politics and government in the Reagan-Bush era. It confuses a personal handler with people who make policy. It equates Fuller, one part glorified appointments secretary and one part public relations manager, with Shultz, an MIT PhD and former University of Chicago professor of economics who has been federal budget director, labor secretary, treasury secretary and president of Bechtel. It places Fuller on a level with Weinberger, a Harvard Law grad who -- present legal troubles notwithstanding -- has been a California legislator, secretary of health, education and welfare, and Bechtel's general counsel. In other words, it equates a batboy with a cleanup hitter, a stable boy with a champion jockey. Even compared to the Mr. Fix-Its of the past -- the Clark Cliffords, the Edward Bennett Williamses -- Fuller has no profession like law or business or economics. Yet he doesn't seem to need one to land big corporate clients.

One person who did not make Fuller's list of models is his original mentor, Michael K. Deaver, who brought Fuller to Washington at the beginning of the Reagan administration. That may be because Deaver, a public relations expert and longtime aide to Ronald Reagan, helped give the revolving door a bad name.

When he resigned as Ronald Reagan's chief image-maker in 1985, Deaver promptly signed up an array of foreign and corporate clients, lured by the promise of access to the White House. Shortly after leaving the administration, he was lobbying former colleagues on behalf of such clients as the Canadian government and Rockwell International. Deaver flaunted his contacts, posing for a now-infamous Time magazine cover that showed him picking up a car phone in the back of a rented limo. The headline: "WHO IS THIS MAN CALLING? Influence Peddling in Washington." The stories about Deaver spurred Congress to take up new ethics bills. A congressional subcommittee failed to find that Deaver had violated any ethics laws, but he was convicted in 1987 of lying to the subcommittee and a grand jury. He had tried to have it both ways, luring rich clients with his connections and then swearing to Democratic lawmakers that he had no special access.

Only a stroke of luck saved Fuller from getting tangled up in the affair. He had been planning to join Deaver's firm in early 1985 until Bush confidant Nicholas F. Brady, now treasury secretary, recommended his hiring as Bush's chief of staff.

By design and by temperament, Fuller is less brazen than Deaver and less flamboyant than many other political operatives. If the late Lee Atwater was spicy barbecue, Fuller is bran flake. He works hard to avoid giving offense, and the highest and most frequent praise people have for him is, "He's really a nice guy." The words "lobbying" and "influence" never cross his lips, and he plays down his White House connections. And where Deaver pushed the limits, arguing that he could legally lobby the Office of Management and Budget because it was, technically, a separate agency from the White House, Fuller says he interpreted the ethics laws broadly and refrained from contacting any administration members on behalf of clients during his first year out of government.

"I guess the lesson there was, 'Don't make yourself vulnerable to the appearance of impropriety,' " Fuller says. It comes out sounding less like a moral judgment than like a simple principle of good PR.

ALL WASHINGTON insiders have stories about the way they broke into the big leagues. Craig Fuller did it by following Michael Deaver to his car.

It was in early 1977, on a street in downtown Los Angeles. Deaver had recently left the Reagan state- house in Sacramento to start his own public relations firm with Peter Hannaford, and that day he had made a pitch for the business of Pacific Mutual Life Insurance. Fuller, then 25, was working in the public affairs office at Pacific Mutual and sat in on Deaver's presentation. Afterward, Fuller followed Deaver outside and made a pitch of his own, asking for a job in Deaver's new firm. He tried to play his Reagan card, reminding Deaver that they had met in Sacramento when Fuller was a summer intern. Deaver didn't remember.

But the veteran image-maker liked Fuller's pluck. "He was a young kid. He was very pleasant and outgoing," Deaver recalls. "I couldn't afford to hire anybody at the time, so I told him if he could bring in business in 90 days, he could stay -- and he did." Like many successful careers, Fuller's has been a mixture of perspicacity, connections and luck. If it has included ambition, he'd rather not talk about it. "This was not any carefully laid plan," he says. "I wasn't out in L.A. figuring out how I can fight my way into the halls of the White House."

He grew up in Walnut Creek, Calif., in the late 1960s -- just over the hills from Berkeley, where demonstrations raged against the war in Vietnam and against Ronald Reagan. Fuller, who went to UCLA, says he was not infected by that spirit of rebellion.

Neither was he enthusiastic about the war. An avid pilot since high school, Fuller was good draft material, but he avoided Vietnam the same way Bill Clinton did. At first, Fuller joined the Air Force ROTC program. Later, when the military switched to a lottery system, Fuller drew a high number and escaped service.

In the summer of 1971, he worked as an intern in the state capital. He became the student representative on a housing commission, the chairman of the California advisory committee on youth and the student representative on the governor's task force on government reform. The work continued when he got back to UCLA, and he shuttled back to Sacramento from time to time. After college he won a fellowship with the Coro Foundation, which sent students through nine months' work experience in different places -- in Fuller's case, ranging from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to KNBC-TV news to Pacific Mutual, which hired him full time.

During his stint there, he worked with young public affairs officers at other companies to organize political action committees, then a relatively new phenomenon. When he moved on to Deaver & Hannaford, he drew on those contacts to drum up public relations work. "He had a good network of people like himself," Deaver says. In addition to Pacific Mutual itself, Fuller signed up Coca-Cola Bottling Co. in Los Angeles and several grocery chains. "It clearly didn't hurt to have Deaver & Hannaford behind you," Fuller says.

The grocery chains were introducing electronic scanners like the one that so impressed President Bush during a grocers' convention early this year. In the 1970s, scanners were still a novel idea, and consumer groups opposed them, saying it was impossible to tell what the bar codes meant. "If the grocery stores wanted to introduce scanners and wanted to save the labor of item pricing, they had to explain how they held down prices for consumers. They had to package it in a way to make their case," Fuller says. But Fuller told the grocery stores that they had to do more than simply deal with scanners. "In each case I said you ought to have a PAC and a public affairs program. And we came with a whole program."

WHEN DEAVER followed Ronald Reagan to Washington in 1981, Fuller went too. His reward was an office in the basement, right next to Richard Darman's.

The White House basement is the ganglion of an administration, transmitting impulses and signals back and forth between the president and the limbs of government. Fuller, whose title was Cabinet secretary, managed the flow of paper to the agencies, and Darman, now director of the Office of Management and Budget, managed the flow of paper to the White House. "By working together, we were in a critical place to know what was going on," Fuller says. "Because we were at the information control points, we were the ones people went to to acquire information."

The Reagan Cabinet rarely met, and Reagan took to meeting with just a few key advisers, among them his high-profile troika of top aides (Deaver, Ed Meese and James Baker) plus the less-visible Fuller and Darman.

"They were the basement gurus in the West Wing," says Deaver. "Darman knew how to play the Washington game as well as anybody, and Craig learned a great deal from him." Darman and Fuller learned their way around the entire Washington bureaucracy. "If I needed to get an issue up through that bureaucracy, Craig was the one you'd call," Deaver says.

In 1983, when Deaver wanted to tackle Reagan's do-nothing public image on education, Fuller brought him information about a largely ignored presidential commission on excellence in education. "Nobody had paid any attention to it," Deaver recalls, "but I was looking for a way to reverse the president's negatives on education, and we took it around the country for six weeks." In speech after speech, Reagan cited the commission as evidence of his commitment to educational issues. At the end of that period, 59 percent of the public gave him a favorable rating on education issues, whereas before 65 percent had viewed him negatively on the issue.

"It was a great lesson in presidential communication," Deaver says -- though the exercise did nothing to change the quality of American schools, where student performance continued to sink throughout much of the 1980s.

In 1985, when George Bush decided to clean up his disorganized and ineffective vice presidential staff, he tapped Fuller to run it.

Despite his links to the California conservatives who surrounded Reagan, Fuller was in many ways the perfect match for Bush. Like the vice president, Fuller hadn't joined the Reagan camp out of any deep sense of ideological conviction. "I wasn't active in Republican groups," he recalls. His parents had been Democrats, and his brother worked briefly for Reagan's California successor, Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown. Fuller had hoped his UCLA internship program would send him to Washington, not Sacramento. Once in Sacramento, though, he liked it. "It wasn't Reagan who was waging the Vietnam War. I found the people there to be quality people," he says.

The phrase comes up over and over as Fuller describes his career. When he talks about why he wanted to work for Vice President Bush, he says "it was a quality group of people." When he speaks of joining Philip Morris, he describes Philip Morris Chairman Michael Miles as a quality person.

As the vice president's chief of staff, Fuller became part of the so-called Group of Six -- the others were Brady, Atwater, Teeter, Roger Ailes and Robert Mosbacher -- who met regularly to coordinate Bush's official duties with his political agenda.

Then came Election Day and the chief of staff decision. Now that the arrogant Sununu has gone down in flames, some Republicans think Bush would have been better off with the efficient, unassuming Fuller. But at the time, administration insiders say, Bush wanted someone with more "oomph," someone with independent stature who could stand up to congressional leaders, an elected official instead of a career aide. And he wanted to reward Sununu, who had rescued the Bush campaign from a near-death experience in the New Hampshire primary.

Many longtime Bush loyalists also wanted to push Fuller out because they'd felt shut off from Bush when Fuller tried to impose more order on the vice president's office. "Fuller alienated a lot of people," one old Bush ally says. "He was very cliquish and was always trying to keep you out of meetings so you couldn't have input."

Even Fuller's attention to detail had proven to be a liability as well as an asset. As vice president, Bush had met with Israeli counterterrorism chief Amiram Nir. In Bush's suite at the King David Hotel overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, Nir had described in detail the arms-for-hostages swap being negotiated by Israel on behalf of the United States. After the arms-for-hostages deal backfired, Bush claimed that Nir had only discussed Israeli dealings, not American ones; never made clear that arms were being traded for hostages; and described talks with Iranian "moderates," not radicals. But Fuller, who had been at the meeting, had taken extensive notes that contradicted all three of Bush's statements. The notes embarrassed Bush.

Loyalty is a Bush virtue, however, and when Fuller left, the administration helped ease his way into private life by arranging for the Republican National Committee to give him a $4,000-a-month consulting contract.

RIGHT AWAY, GEORGE BUSH'S LOSS turned into John Sasso's gain.

The same day that Bush trounced Michael Dukakis and told Fuller he had lost out to Sununu, California voters inadvertently handed a consolation prize to Fuller and Sasso, a key adviser to the Dukakis campaign. The voters passed Proposition 103, a measure designed to force the automobile, property and liability insurance industry to roll back its premiums by about 20 percent.

A client was born. Soon the Insurance Information Institute of New York, eager to stop other states from following California's example, knocked on the door of the advertising firm Hill Holiday, where Sasso had gone to work after the election.

If politics makes strange bedfellows, business sets its own standard of kinkiness. Laying aside the bitterness of the Willie Horton/Pledge of Allegiance/flag factory campaign, Sasso called Fuller -- who had become a partner in Wexler, Reynolds, Fuller, Harrison & Schule Inc., a small Washington-based political consulting firm -- to suggest they get together to advise the frightened insurance industry. Just weeks after heaving political grenades at each other, the two met. Fuller joked about wishing he'd remembered to bring his American flags. Sasso said he'd meant to borrow the M1 tank helmet Dukakis had been ridiculed for wearing.

"The tenor of the campaign . . . doesn't mean you can't respect someone for his abilities," Sasso says. "Campaigns are tough and so forth, but among certain folks in the business I hope there's a mutual respect."

The insurance project, directed at quashing state initiatives, suited Fuller, who by law was barred from lobbying his former colleagues at the White House. At the same time, it drew on his previous year's experience. "There is so much you learn in a campaign that applies to other activities: coalitions, building grass-roots support, working with the press and the media. A presidential campaign is more complex, but it has a lot of the same components," says Kathleen Shanahan, who'd followed Fuller from the Bush staff to become a vice president of the Wexler firm.

According to Charles Clark, a former official of the Insurance Information Institute of New York, Fuller helped the industry plot a strategy to defuse the voter rebellion against rates. Fuller suggested that the industry not simply rely on advertisements, but try to get sympathetic articles published in newspapers and broadcast on television. He introduced polling research to an industry previously oblivious to public opinion. He showed that people didn't understand why they paid insurance premiums and that the public harbored deep animosity toward the industry. "Craig was a master with these CEOs at explaining why we were doing what we were doing," Shanahan says.

Fuller and the industry agreed on a 10-state offensive designed to "inoculate" the states and "preempt them from taking action" similar to California's, Shanahan says. Seizing on the fact that high numbers of auto accidents drive up insurance rates, Fuller urged the insurance companies to join forces with consumer groups, safety organizations, police forces and senior citizens to shift attention away from insurance premiums to public safety. The sound bite: Reduce costs by saving lives.

"I can't tell you how many people we had working on this," says Shanahan. It was a $7 million account, according to press reports at the time. Local individuals and groups made up the membership of the new safety coalitions, but Fuller and the Wexler firm, financed by the insurance industry, provided people to help organize meetings and take minutes. "They provided recommendations and administrative and staff help," says Clark. "The Wexler group provided the lubrication services."

Not everyone was impressed. "The insurance industry was wildly inflating its premiums in the past decade," says Sara Nichols, staff attorney for Public Citizen. "It is typical for the insurance industry to focus on something that everyone can agree on in order to make the insurance industry look like the good guy. It's good to have fewer accidents and we're all for that, but that's not bringing down premiums." Despite the industry's efforts, Texas and New Jersey have passed measures designed to clamp down on insurance costs.

Fuller, meanwhile, seemed to have settled easily into the firm founded by Anne Wexler, a leading Democrat and former Carter aide, and Nancy Reynolds, a prominent Republican. Its offices, on 13th near F, have the feel of an old home, with large wooden doorways, wood trim, small sofas and comfortable chairs.

"The name of the consulting game is how many people you know and the ease with which you can call them and ask them questions, if nothing else," explains Reynolds. Washington is a city of relationships. "Everybody is dependent on everybody else here. It's a friendly feeding game."

Having spent four years in the Reagan White House, four years at Bush's side and two months assembling the new administration, Fuller certainly knew who was who. "If you'd say 'Craig, do you know of someone' in some part of the government you'd never heard of, he'd know," says Reynolds. "He had an incredible network."

Corporate executives, anxious about impending regulatory or legislative calamity, liked Fuller's calm, reassuring demeanor. Reynolds says that three or four executives who had met Fuller when he was with the administration brought their companies' work to the firm.

"We were, to say the least, joyous," says Reynolds. "We got some wonderful new clients, and our existing clients were thrilled."

But not for long. "I wanted a bigger stage," Fuller says.

HILL & KNOWLTON WAS ONE OF THE firms that had pursued Fuller when he left government, and it stayed after him even after he joined Wexler Reynolds. Though he liked Wexler's firm, Fuller was tempted by the prospects a move would offer: representing more international clients and playing a central role at a major-league public relations firm. (Hill & Knowlton owned several advertising and consulting companies and was itself owned by a British advertising and public relations giant, the WPP Group.) Hill & Knowlton wanted Fuller, according to a senior partner who helped woo him, because clients tend to look at him and say, "Here's an in with the White House." Robert Dilenschneider, who was Hill & Knowlton's president at the time, puts it more delicately: "I felt his way of marrying public affairs and public relations was important to the business."

The firm also wanted to polish its Republican credentials. Its senior Republican partner, Robert Gray, had been Cabinet secretary during the Eisenhower administration and was an old friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, but he wasn't as close to many of the Bush operatives.

After lengthy talks, Fuller persuaded the partners at Wexler Reynolds to merge the entire firm with Hill & Knowlton. The documents were signed August 2, 1990, the day Iraq invaded Kuwait. For many members of the firm, the deal was lucrative. Each partner made a different arrangement with different forms of payment. Fuller's contract included a modest signing bonus and would have guaranteed him between $2 million and $3 million over five years, sources say.

Still, some of the Wexler partners were less than thrilled about the merger. In 1990, Hill & Knowlton already had a reputation as a firm where fast growth was causing some problems, but "there was a lot more buried there than anybody had any idea," says one Wexler partner. Acquaintances of Anne Wexler say she was never enthusiastic about the deal herself, and her group kept separate offices and autonomous status; the agreement stipulated that Wexler Reynolds could become independent again after five years. (Wexler did not return numerous calls for this article.)

But the real troubles started shortly after the merger, when the stock of Hill & Knowlton's British parent company plunged. WPP Group, struggling to meet debt payments, suspended its dividend and lost about 85 percent of its market value before the end of the year. Last month, as the firm was fending off creditor banks, the stock was selling for under $2 a share, less than a tenth of its peak price.

Dilenschneider, pressured by WPP Group, pushed hard to drive up billings. "If you said a client had a budget of $60,000, he would make sure every penny of that was spent," one partner says. A rival firm says it acquired clients fleeing Hill & Knowlton because of excessive bills. A former group director at Hill & Knowlton recalls that at the weekly group directors' meetings, "there was not a single instance where we discussed how service quality could be improved for clients."

Meanwhile, Hill & Knowlton's Washington office was rife with internal political rifts. The aging Gray had surrounded himself with a circle of loyal friends and colleagues, many of whom had worked for him when he had run his own independent firm. One Wexler partner says the office was run more like a "small fraternity" than a business.

Some partners believed that Gray, whose best contacts were no longer at the center of Republican politics, was jealous of Fuller's White House connections. "Gray's secretary would come into a meeting and whisper so all could hear that the White House was on the phone," says a former Hill & Knowlton executive who believes Gray was hyping his insider status. "Gray would look at the paper, put it in his pocket or tear it up, and get up," the executive continues. "It could be the cook at the White House."

Then there was the image problem created by some of the firm's clients. Over the years, Hill & Knowlton -- eager for new business -- had agreed to represent almost anyone, including the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) and the Church of Scientology. The firm's blue-chip clients were bothered by the Scientology account (which predated Fuller's arrival); they argued that it involved Hill & Knowlton in conflicts of interest. For example, the Scientologists were attacking an Eli Lilly drug as dangerous, while Eli Lilly was using another WPP Group subsidiary, J. Walter Thompson, as its advertising agency. "We were stunned," an Eli Lilly official says, to discover that Hill & Knowlton had "a huge contract" to represent the Scientologists. SmithKline, another pharmaceutical company, broke off negotiations on a contract with Hill & Knowlton because of the Scientology issue. Hill & Knowlton told SmithKline that there was no conflict; however, the firm dropped the Scientology account and says it is being sued by the group. (SmithKline does maintain a relationship with Hill & Knowlton.)

Another controversial Hill & Knowlton client was Citizens for a Free Kuwait, signed up the week after the merger with Wexler Reynolds. After Saddam Hussein sent his troops into the oil-rich sheikdom, Gray and Frank Mankiewicz, vice chairman for public affairs, went to see the Kuwaiti ambassador, who steered them to a group of private Kuwaiti citizens. "The Kuwaiti citizens had all the right instincts," Fuller says. "They needed to talk about their country and about the atrocities they started to hear about. But what they lacked was a structure."

Hill & Knowlton set up Citizens for a Free Kuwait, arranged press interviews for Kuwaitis in exile, printed up slick information booklets on Kuwait, organized national speaking tours and arranged for testimony to be submitted to Congress. The firm put together a series of white papers on the economic impact of the invasion, consulting with a Kuwaiti economist at the World Bank. Hill & Knowlton also sent a former television network producer to Saudi Arabia to help turn smuggled video footage into tapes that could be used by network news.

"We used the same old principles," Fuller says. "Develop a clear, concise message and tell the story effectively." Fuller is sketchy about his own role on the Kuwait account, but associates from Hill & Knowlton say he was in frequent contact with National Security Council members and staff, with whom he exchanged information about the situation in Kuwait.

Which brings up another conflict-of-interest question. There is little doubt that whatever White House strategy sessions Fuller attended or whatever casual administration contacts he had at the time focused on the Iraqi invasion and what action the United States might take. Is it appropriate for someone with that kind of White House access to represent a group promoting U.S. intervention? Was Fuller helping the Bush administration rally support for the war effort on the tab of wealthy Kuwaiti citizens? Or, perhaps a tougher question: Was he using his expertise to push the country toward war because it was in his clients' interests?

"Getting their message across was completely in line with the goals of the Bush administration," Fuller says. "By helping the Kuwaiti citizens, it was clear we would be helping the Bush administration. Is it right to help a foreign government build popular support for an American war effort? The process of determining what's right is a complicated one. But it is not easy for someone raised in Kuwait City to explain his case to the national news media, and it was important that the case be accurately portrayed."

After the war ended, questions were raised as to whether Hill & Knowlton concealed an important fact from the public. In the weeks leading up to the war, Hill & Knowlton arranged public congressional testimony by a young woman who said she had seen Iraqi soldiers killing children by unplugging and stealing incubators from a neonatal intensive care unit in a hospital in Kuwait City. The identity of the young woman was not revealed at the time, supposedly for her protection. Later it turned out that she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador -- information that might have affected the credibility of her testimony.

"Nobody sat around and said we really need a story about children and incubators," says Fuller. "We kept hearing stories about incubators. I've not met the woman, but I saw her testimony and I found her compelling. What a young girl saw and how terrifying it was and whether it grew in her mind, I don't know. If someone decided to fabricate a story, the ambassador would not use a member of his own family. In any case, to debate the degree of atrocity is useful, but I'm not sure how useful. It had to be a horrifying place to be, and that was the message we were trying to get out."

When Fuller first came to Hill & Knowlton, he spent much of his time making sales calls on prospective corporate clients. "He would meet with clients and open the door as you would expect a senior rainmaker to do," says John Urbanchuk, a former Hill & Knowlton economist who went on sales pitches with Fuller. Or Fuller would point Hill & Knowlton clients to the right person in the administration. When an investment group wanted to draft a tax credit proposal that would help it buy savings and loan assets held by the Resolution Trust Corp., for example, Fuller got a Hill & Knowlton economist appointments with a senior staff economist at the Council of Economic Advisers and with Robert Glauber, then undersecretary of the treasury for domestic policy. "You don't want to get up before a congressional committee and sound like a fool," explains Urbanchuk.

But as bad publicity about the firm increased, Fuller spent more time dealing with office management and less time with clients. Dilenschneider left to start his own public relations firm and Gray was supposedly near retirement. In October 1991, Fuller became head of Hill & Knowlton's U.S. operations, but still had trouble with the organization. Some group general managers wanted him to take charge more; he expected them to be independent. Some Hill & Knowlton partners tired of Fuller's talk about strategy; he wanted to plan ahead.

Another problem was Bob Gray, whose Hill & Knowlton contract was extended last fall for three years. Fuller had expected Gray to leave by April, his associates say. Both Fuller and Gray deny this. "I brought him in. I gave up the title I had, president of the U.S. company," Gray says. "Given his age and mine" -- a difference of three decades -- "even an impatient man could think he was moving along quickly."

Impatient or not, however, Fuller thought Hill & Knowlton's troubles came in too many layers. "It was like an onion," says Kathleen Shanahan, who is now with the Bush/Quayle campaign. "We were continually trying to peel away the problems." In the end, her boss peeled himself away instead.

THE 1990S BROUGHT TWO JOB OFFERS that Craig Fuller couldn't refuse. The first -- chairman of the Republican National Convention -- helped keep him active in the power game. The second -- director of corporate affairs for Philip Morris -- was a reward for his skillful play.

January 1991, with thousands of American troops poised for combat in the Middle East, might seem an odd time for the White House to be worrying about an August 1992 convention. But when the subject came up at a breakfast with Bush, Fuller recalls, he suggested that the president appoint a coordinating convention chairman early to avoid the sort of last-minute planning that had nearly caused problems in 1984. "He liked the idea and said why not me. I didn't have myself in mind necessarily," Fuller says.

Like all matter in the universe, political conventions naturally tend to spin toward chaos. The Republican convention in Houston this month is no exception. A contentious platform fight on the abortion issue is expected. At least half a dozen party leaders angling for the 1996 nomination will jockey for position in the convention schedule and on the podium. Bush's nettlesome challenger, Pat Buchanan, will demand a forum to represent the 22.7 percent of Republican primary voters who cast their ballots against the president. About 14,000 members of the domestic and international press are expected.

Enter convention chairman Fuller. "I don't like either chaos or disorganization too much," he says.

Organization is one thing that the Bush/Quayle campaign wants for its biggest media event of the year. The goal is a smooth, made-for-television script.

By late spring, about 30 people were already in Houston doing much of the detail work. Fuller's task will be to arrange the Bush family's schedule. He will also help decide who appears when on the speaker's platform.

Buchanan, for example. "I'd put him at 10 in the morning or at 2 in the morning," says Ron Walker, who ran the 1984 Republican convention. Fuller makes no bones about where his loyalty lies. "I'm a creature of the Bush/Quayle campaign," he says. "We're not going to have anyone on the list of speakers who doesn't endorse George Bush. I'd love for Pat Buchanan to be on that list, and I hope his endorsement comes sooner rather than later."

Eager to avoid open warfare on the floor, Fuller is planning to wrap up the abortion debate before television coverage starts. "The platform committee will meet the week before and if necessary work through the weekend," he says. "We welcome people into the party with different views. Just because the president has a view doesn't mean he's imposing it on others."

That's news to Ann E.W. Stone, national chairman of Republicans for Choice, who claims to represent the majority of the Grand Old Party. "I'm open to hearing what they have to say," Stone says. "We want a pro-choice plank in the platform. If we can work one out, they'll have no trouble on the floor. And if we can't, they will."

Why would anyone want the job of settling these spats? When Bush gave Fuller the task, Fuller was still at Hill & Knowlton, and some Republican consultants say he eagerly sought the convention chairmanship for that reason. "It's great for business," says one lobbyist. "You bring all your clients down there and stick them in the stands, take them to receptions, rub jockstraps with Cabinet officials. It can be an extraordinarily use- ful tool."

But as of January, Fuller wasn't worrying about Hill & Knowlton clients anymore.

In the fall of 1991, Philip Morris tried to hire White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater as its director of corporate affairs. Fitzwater turned down the job, and the giant food and tobacco conglomerate offered it to Fuller. He declined once but changed his mind when the offer was made again.

Fuller says he left Hill & Knowlton because the Philip Morris offer was irresistible. "When will there be another opportunity with a chairman as attractive as Mike Miles?" he asks rhetorically.

Guy Smith, Fuller's Philip Morris predecessor, says that "just about every regulatory agency" affects the conglomerate, whose 4,000 products include everything from Marlboro cigarettes to Breyers ice cream, Lender's bagels to Oscar Mayer bacon, Miller beer to Toblerone chocolates.

The top concerns on the legislative and regulatory front? "Tobacco, tobacco, tobacco, beer and food," Smith says.

The Agriculture Department oversees tobacco subsidies. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is concerned about the effects of passive smoking in public places. The Food and Drug Administration regulates products made by the company's General Foods and Kraft subsidiaries. The U.S. trade representative negotiates to tear down trade barriers preventing the export of U.S. cigarettes to foreign countries. The Federal Trade Commission is responsible for regulating advertising. The Labor Department deals with workplace rules for the tens of thousands of Philip Morris employees. The Securities and Exchange Commission monitors stock activities. The surgeon general prescribes warning labels for cigarette packages.

As for the legislative branch, Philip Morris's food subsidiaries are increasingly concerned about environmental laws that would make it more expensive to get rid of solid waste. And the tax on cigarettes was increased in 1991 and is scheduled to increase again in 1993.

What's worse, an independent presidential commission on Medicare and Social Security recommended that the United States adopt a Canadian-style tax on cigarettes that would raise the price per pack to $5.50 or more, from the current level of about $2. A study found that the higher tax reduced teenage smoking by 37 percent. The commission noted that diseases related to cigarette smoking were helping to drive up the cost of health care.

"Philip Morris acknowledges that there are risk factors involved with smoking," says Fuller, who does not smoke himself. "But 50 million adults have chosen to smoke, and they have the right to make that decision . . . We want to be able to market tobacco products to adults without undue restrictions or punitive taxes."

TWO WEEKS FROM NOW, WHEN GEORGE Bush heads south to Houston, he will stay at the same hotel suite in which he told Fuller that John Sununu was getting the chief of staff job. At the time, the conventional wisdom pegged Sununu as a brilliant if abrasive powerhouse, and Fuller as a not-ready-for-prime-time lightweight. Which shows you what the conventional wisdom is worth.

Washington is a town where intellect is not the most essential survival tool. And this year, with Sununu fallen from grace -- he's now scrambling, ironically, to launch a public affairs career of his own and is currently co-host of the television program "Crossfire" -- it is Fuller who has the luxury of dispensing wisdom.

"One of the problems John Sununu had was that you need to have a healthy respect for the institutions here: the Congress, the news media, the special interests," he says. "You can't succeed if you have disdain for the institutions of this town."

But is Fuller's respect for these institutions -- and his proven ability to navigate smoothly among them -- really worth half a million dollars a year?

Can he, for example, whisper to his "very good friend" Darman that the administration's tax-based health policy should not include a higher federal tax on cigarettes? Would Wexler Reynolds clients Arco and Ohio Edison have been able to alter clauses in the Clean Air Act of 1990 without Fuller's help?

This is a matter of debate among his former associates and acquaintances. An OMB official says that Fuller sometimes calls and asks if he can stop by with a vice president of some company. "I tell them where things stand. Most of the time they are looking for guidance about what the administration's position will be -- never major major," the official says.

"Craig has always appeared to be one of those guys who is underestimated, like Ronald Reagan," says Deaver. "It can be a great asset. He has a great mind and a will of steel beneath that fuzzy exterior."

But in the end, the question of what Fuller's help is worth may have less to do with whether he is personally overrated than with whether the whole "profession" he's part of is as important as practitioners want clients to believe.

"With respect to the administration, Craig's phone calls get answered," a former Hill & Knowlton executive says. "Apart from that, 10 years of service in government, particularly if you survived, builds a certain social intelligence about how government works, an intuitive sense of where personalities and politics come in and how to navigate through that. But cronyism is vastly overrated in terms of utility on most issues."

Nancy Reynolds puts a brighter shine on it. "We are not in the business of fix- ing things, but at least moving things, unsticking things and at least getting a fair hearing," she says. "We're intelligence gatherers. Craig had the ability to make one or two phone calls and find out the real story. Information is the name of the game, and to know something immediately."

And Fuller himself? How does he rate his own value on the far side of the revolving door?

"In Washington, the stakes are very, very high for companies and individuals, and people might retain us for sheer comfort and to have someone who could sit and listen to a presentation rehearsed," he says, refusing to make the hard sell -- remembering, perhaps, what happened when Mike Deaver tried.

"It's hard to say what someone like me adds to the process."

Steven Mufson is a reporter on The Post's Financial staff.