It is the second time around for Kenneth M. Duberstein, who was with Ronald Reagan in the halcyon days of 1981-83 and is back again for the twilight struggles of the final year and a half of his presidency.

Duberstein is the 43-year-old deputy chief of staff and hands-on manager in the collegial team assembled by White House chief of staff Howard H. Baker Jr. to rescue Reagan in his time of trouble. Baker, the former Senate majority leader, formed a lasting appreciation of Duberstein when he was director of congressional relations in the administration's glory days. Baker affectionately calls him "Deputy Duberdog" and relies on him to keep the White House functioning.

"Ken is action central, the ranch foreman," says White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. "He's kind of the driver who forces the actions and gets things done."

Getting things done is no easy matter for the White House these days. Reagan may have lost the summit to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in October. He and his fellow Republicans lost the Senate to the Democrats in November. Then, Reagan lost the magic of his presidency and a large chunk of his approval rating after the disclosures of the Iran-contra scandal. The president was thrown on the defensive against a resurgent Congress anxious to advance its own domestic and foreign policy agenda.

But Duberstein, a rumpled, wise-cracking "people person" of relentless optimism and energy, seems undeterred by the obvious obstacles. At Baker's request he gave up a high-paying and comfortable lobbyist's job to return to the turmoil of the White House, where Reagan welcomed him warmly for "coming home." Despite the odds, Duberstein believes that Reagan can succeed in the end game of his presidency. It is a minority view that finds some surprising resonance on Capitol Hill.

"The president is never a lame duck as long as there are issues of importance before the country in which his concurrence is necessary, and that would certainly apply to the budget, trade and welfare reform," said House Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), who is so high on Duberstein that he sounds like his campaign manager.

Duberstein, says Foley, is "extremely competent, knowledgeable and pragmatic in his approach to government. He's devoted to making the president's last 19 months being productive and we all have an interest in that."

Duberstein also draws rave reviews from Republicans. Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) praises him as a man of "absolute integrity" who delivers what he promises and "probably doesn't know how to spell the word 'pompous.' "

Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.), chief of staff to President Gerald R. Ford and a member of the House Republican leadership, says Duberstein exemplifies the staff man who keeps politicians out of trouble.

"Good staff can keep you from making mistakes," says Cheney. "If President Reagan had been given the assistance he needed over the past two years, maybe he wouldn't be in hot water now."

Cheney and Rep. Buddy Roemer (D-La.), in separate interviews, made the identical point that Duberstein tends to his relationships even when those he deals with are out of power. In the Reagan first term Duberstein became a firm friend of Robert C. McFarlane, then the deputy national security adviser. Duberstein was one of the first to visit McFarlane in the hospital and express his support after McFarlane's suicide attempt.

Duberstein -- who contends that both an arms control accord with the Soviet Union and a budget compromise with Congress remain within reach -- was a key middle-level player in the first of Reagan's "three administrations." This was the team headed by White House chief of staff James A. Baker III, encompassing the entire first term. The second administration, under Donald T. Regan, lasted two years and two days. The third administration began Feb. 27 when an embittered Regan, under fire from his own party and First Lady Nancy Reagan, walked out of the White House after learning that former senator Baker had been chosen to replace him.

One of Baker's first decisions was to bring in Duberstein, whom he had called his "bird dog" and then "Duberdog" in the early Reagan administration when Baker, as majority leader, was point man for the White House legislative program. Then, Duberstein was a Brooklynite among westerners who cultivated southern "boll weevils." Now, he is the Brooklyn member of a Tennessee team that includes Baker, communications director Thomas C. Griscom and White House counsel Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr.

The first Baker administration, the period of Reagan's stunning triumphs on tax-cut and budget legislation, also was marked by personal feuds and ideological conflicts. The Regan years, after the president's easy reelection in 1984, featured a concentration of power by the chief of staff and diminished public accessibility for the president.

The current Baker administration is more collegial than its predecessors, though some contend it lacks the first-term depth provided by budget director David A. Stockman and White House strategist Richard Darman. Baker has become a strategist and counselor to Reagan, while Griscom has specialized in ideas and planning and Duberstein in day-to-day management. Culvahouse has made himself an expert on the legal issues of the Iran-contra affair. The entire Baker team has forged an alliance with national security adviser Frank C. Carlucci, who was brought in to overhaul the National Security Council staff after the Iran disclosures and the resignation of then-Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter.

"We want to make things work, plain and simple," says Duberstein, a chain-smoking, one-time Eagle Scout who consumes a large amount of sodium in such food as pastrami and pretzels. But Duberstein, who says he hasn't stepped on a scale recently, looks to be about 10 pounds lighter than he was in his first White House incarnation. He jokes that he is also shorter. "When I started out I was 6-feet-4," he said. "Now, I'm 5-9."

Both James Baker and Regan began their "administrations" with the political advantages of electoral landslides and GOP control of the Senate. Republican ascendancy was reflected in the ego clashes of powerful administration rivals. Now, expectations and Reagan's approval rating are so low that turf battles hardly seem worth fighting. "They're not standing on a mountain," says Rudman. "They're down in the valley trying to climb the hill."

Duberstein, who made as many friends with Democrats as with Republicans in his days as congressional liaison, comes naturally to his bipartisan approach and his interest in public affairs. His father was a fund-raiser for the Boy Scouts, his mother a teacher. One of his uncles was a power in the Republican Party in Brooklyn and one of his cousins, now a judge, was a Democratic Party leader. "I was always attracted to making our system work," he says.

Duberstein's strength, says Will Ball, a friend and the present White House director of congressional relations, is that "he can do 10 things at once -- he was born to work in a high-intensity environment like the White House. There are a lot of great politicians in this town who can't work at a mile-a-minute pace; Kenny thrives on it."

During the recent visit of Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, which coincided with House consideration of the trade bill, Duberstein saw to it that the White House statements reflected a common theme. "He understood that the State Department and NSC wanted to cuddle up to Nakasone and tell him that U.S. sanctions would be lifted a week from Tuesday," said a White House official. "Duberstein realized that this didn't reflect the political realities."

What Baker, Duberstein and Griscom have tried to do with Reagan is make him accessible again, while also seeing to it that the president understands the realities. "I think one of the major jobs of a good staff person is to paint a full canvas for the president," says Duberstein. "You need to present the ups and downs, the nuances, the realities, the full spectrum of practical ideas so that the president can make the best-informed decision. Howard Baker encourages that, and Ronald Reagan, with his great instincts, benefits from having that full canvas."

Within GOP circles the question is whether the painting of that "full canvas" has come too late to save the Reagan administration. The answer is not known, but Rudman says of the Baker-Duberstein team, "If they can't save it, nobody can."


White House deputy chief of staff. Formerly a lobbyist for Timmons & Co., assistant to the president for legislative affairs and congressional liaison at the Labor Department and General Services Administration. Was research assistant and campaign codirector for the late Sen. Jacob K. Javits (R-N.Y.). BA, Franklin and Marshall College; MA, American University. Age 43.