HOUSTON, NOV. 4 -- In the final days of the campaign of 1990, President Bush -- having sought votes by invoking the Persian Gulf, the tax-and-spend Democrats, the environment, crime and education -- turned to Jimmy Carter as a last resort, as Republicans have for a decade.

"You face a choice, whether to turn the clock back and return to . . . the malaise days" of the 1970s, Bush thundered to a campaign audience in New Mexico on Saturday.

The day was to have focused on positive tales of Republican efforts to improve the environment. But it turned partisan after a tree-planting ceremony, two speeches on the new Clean Air Act revisions and a hastily called briefing by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly all failed to arouse any local or national news media interest.

Such midstream switches seemed to have become the norm as the Bush entourage, rife with feuding, finger-pointing and defensiveness, limped into Houston and the campaign's end.

In the five days that opened last Tuesday with a rally in Washington, Bush first bashed and blamed the Democrats, and then abruptly dropped that theme and turned to bashing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and hinting at both war and peace in the same speeches.

On Thursday, Saddam was worse than Adolf Hitler. On Friday, Hitler was gone. On Saturday, Hitler was back. At midweek, Bush, reading from notes, complained that reporters were the ones who were confused. "I don't think there's any inconsistency," he said.

It has been a troubled autumn for the White House. Bush's approval rating has dropped 20 percentage points during the past two months, the swiftest drop ever recorded for a president.

Much of the resulting GOP finger-pointing has been aimed at White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, who was key in managing the politics and the administration position on the the unpopular deficit-reduction deal.

To try to recover, Sununu had White House speechwriters draft a series of fiery "red-meat" speeches for Bush's campaign endgame. The underlying theme was, as one official put it: "The Democrats made me do it."

But according to a senior administration official, Bush was uncomfortable with some of the harsh rhetoric. Several advisers, particularly pollster Robert Teeter, cautioned that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to blame Democrats successfully for a budget package the White House initiated and that Bush had approved and promoted. Teeter and others also warned that so much partisanship would strip Bush of his "presidential" mantle.

Administration officials said Bush had called in his two 1988 campaign pros -- Teeter and advertising and image guru Roger Ailes -- to help him switch gears.

However, officials said, Sununu and his political aide, Edward Rogers, strongly opposed dropping the Democrat-bashing, so much that White House communications director David Demarest was not told before the current trip started to come up with a new set of speeches. Instead he began producing them on the campaign run.

The result last week was a mishmash of issues and themes with only the gulf as a constant. Teeter said the gulf emphasis has helped stabilize Bush's standing because it changed the subject from the budget morass back to foreign policy, where Bush has gotten better -- though declining -- marks.

Meanwhile, White House aides underwent a barrage of accusations and complaints from Sununu that they were incompetent, the source of leaks to reporters and responsible for unfavorable news coverage.

Sununu, said one source here, "has been on the warpath every day. Everything is our fault even though we're the last to know what's going on. If he's not blaming the messenger {the press}, he's blaming us."

A Washington official said Sununu "is pointing the finger everywhere but at the chief of staff's office."

Sununu offered a glimpse of that defensiveness today. Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," he insisted that "what we wanted to achieve all along" this election is only to beat the off-year tradition of presidents suffering double-digit losses of seats in Congress.

Sununu, Rogers and White House political director David Carney have spent the last few days insisting that if the GOP loses fewer than 27 seats in the House and six each in Senate and gubernatorial races, it will be a defeat of the historical average.

But administration and party officials have been predicting since before the budget debacle that the GOP would do far better than that because Republicans are already at a historic Capitol Hill low, particularly in the House.

When questioners tried to probe Sununu further today, he snapped, "Don't mischaracterize what I said." When NBC's Andrea Mitchell asked about Bush's drop in the polls, he said, "Don't look so happy."

Edward J. Rollins, co-chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, who has been at odds with the White House, scoffed at Sununu's math.

Losing even eight or 10 seats in the House and any in the Senate, he said, would be "a disaster" because it would make governing more difficult for Bush.

The tragedy for Republicans in this election, Rollins said, speaking on ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley," is: "We had an opportunity to break history" before the budget debate, and lost it.

The president spent today making phone calls for GOP candidates and visiting a phone bank with Texas GOP gubernatorial nominee Clayton Williams.

Monday he will campaign again for Williams, who has seen his lead in pre-election polls disappear, and head back to the White House after voting here on Tuesday.