President Bush was confronted last week with two conflicting Republican strategies for dealing with the budget mess: Make it a partisan issue at the risk of blowing up the talks, or deal with the Democrats to protect the economy and his presidency. He tried to embrace both, and it exploded in his face.

The conflict crystallized Thursday morning at the White House when Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (R-Mich.) got to his feet. Days of budget stalemate and debate framed around the issue of how much the Republicans want to protect the wealthy had been disastrous for Republican candidates around the country, and he wanted to tell the president and his aides that enough was enough.

The normally placid Vander Jagt, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said it was time for the White House to turn its back on bipartisan deals and government by consensus. The president, he said, should adopt a "here-we-stand" GOP fiscal posture and send his candidates into the final weeks of the campaign armed with that old-time GOP religion that blames "tax-and-spend Democrats" for the nation's ills.

White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu demurred. What the party needed now, he told Vander Jagt, was not more Washington chaos but a "success for the president," a deal that would be good for the economy and that would show the country that Bush was solving problems, not making them.

The exchange illustrated the political forces that pulled Bush in opposite directions last week over tax rates and capital gains cuts, that brought him a week of politically devastating headlines and that left Republicans divided and worried about the party's future.

"There are some people who've been so committed to an agreement {on the budget} that they continue on the search for El Dorado," one senator said. "Others say it's time to quit. Let's start to draw the lines."

Surveying the challenges to Bush and his team as they attempt to maneuver toward another budget deadline Friday, one Republican strategist said, "We have a minefield here, and I'm not certain we're sure-footed enough to walk our way through it."

Bush has to maneuver not only between the conflicts among Republicans in Congress, but inside his administration as well. Sununu and Office of Management and Budget Director Richard G. Darman and Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady favor cutting a deal with the Democrats, who control both the Senate and the House. Vice President Quayle, arguing that unification of the Republicans is essential in light of their mutiny against the president over the bipartisan deficit-reduction package that was defeated, sides with others in the Casbinet who favor confrontation with the Democrats.

Bush's reluctance to choose surfaced Tuesday, when he first embraced the possibility of trading higher tax rates for the wealthiest taxpayers for a cut in capital gains, one of the facets of a House GOP package that Republicans acknowledge has little hope of adoption but would be, in effect, a party statement.

But Bush then appeared to reject that idea hours later after meeting with 17 senators at the White House. By week's end, he was about at square one, embracing the idea as an idea, but saying it has no chance in Congress.

Asked how the president could send out such a stream of mixed signals, House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) said, "Well because, frankly, there are just too many people, I guess, to try and . . . please, to bring them together again to eventually come to some kind of agreement." House Republicans, he said, "are all over the lot," not to mention Senate Republicans and the different views within the White House.

"The president is ambivalent, there is no question about it," a senior administration official said. "He is intrigued by the idea of a GOP plan that has all the things we like in it, even if it can't get through. But ultimately, he wants a deal. Not any deal, but a deal. He thinks you just can't put it off anymore."

The result of his ambivalence? "The whole thing blew up and the world got a good look at a guy who didn't seem to know what he was doing," said a Republican strategist.

For now, the White House strategy is to hope that competing partisan budget plans fall one-by-one in the House, leaving only a bipartisan plan standing. It and the Senate bipartisan plan would be negotiated, in the White House scenario, to produce one package that could pass Congress and that Bush could support.

The president himself, an aide said, plans to "stand on the sidelines publicly" while his aides privately signal what he can or cannot accept. The result, they hope, will be to get a deal that is not tied so closely to the president that its failure would cause him to lose more stature. "We can't stand another loss at the hands of our own," an aide said.

The fallout from two weeks of budget morass has affected not only Bush but his party as well. Bush's approval ratings fell between 10 and 20 percentage points, according to public polls and one taken early in the week for the Republican National Committee. Republican candidates, according to one GOP strategist who has looked at nationwide data, took a dive in some states early in the week, in large part because of the Democratic ability to portray Republicans as the party of the monied interests.

Iowa this week tells the tale of how White House inability to frame this national debate ripples through the political world a month before elections. According to Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, about 400 Iowans were asked Thursday night whether they think Bush's approach to taxes and the budget shows he cares more about protecting the rich or helping the average person. By 2 to 1, those polled said protecting the rich. Even among Republicans, Bush did no better than an even split.

Iowa, which Bush lost to Democrat Michael S. Dukakis in 1988, may be unusual, but Garin said he has seen other Democrats running on populist themes gain ground in recent days. "What this whole thing has done is engage the question of whose side are you on, and Bush in a very visible way has stuck the Republicans on the side of the rich," Garin said.

Republicans understand the problem. "The fact that we are seen to be mesmerized on the capital gains issue is very damaging," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Some Democrats believe the week's events make it more important for Bush to get a budget settlement to enhance his own image. "He needs a deal more now," one congressional Democrat said, "because he's taken hits on leadership."

An administration official appeared to agree. "We've just got to get a budget," he said. "The thing is, once we get a budget, the image problem goes away."