An advance party for former Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. began moving into the White House on Saturday, as Baker laid plans for a Monday morning staff meeting to begin rebuilding morale and credibility shattered by the Iran- contra scandal.
Baker aides Thomas Griscom and James Cannon spent several hours with members of President Reagan's staff at the executive mansion, laying the groundwork for the former Tennessee senator to assume his duties as Reagan's top lieutenant.
Baker was in Bal Harbour, Fla., bringing to a premature conclusion a vacation that had begun as a family retreat to make a final decision on whether he would seek the Republican presidential nomination next year.
As he prepared to fly back to Washington today, sources said, Baker conferred by phone with several political intimates and aides, including Griscom and Cannon at the White House.
Cannon told reporters Saturday afternoon that discussions during the day had been "the beginning of learning about how the White House works and how to serve the President."
The immediate goal, he said, is to find "how to improve the process of information getting to the President."
His remark alluded to a theme that wound its way throughout the devastating Tower Commission report on the Iran-contra scandal--that under resigned Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan, the White House and national security staffs had failed to inform the President of the perils of the ill-fated arms-for-hostages deal.
Restoring Staff Morale
Sources said Saturday that they expect Baker to give his foremost personal attention to rebuilding presidential relations with Capitol Hill and restoring staff morale within the White House itself.
Baker, according to knowledgeable observers, became a Senate power because of an unusual ability to negotiate and achieve consensus on divisive issues, but these sources said he had never distinguished himself as manager of detail.
The description, and the suggestion by others that Baker is by nature casual in his leadership, suggests a style much closer to Reagan's own than was that of the hard-bitten Regan.
One longtime Baker associate predicted Saturday that the new chief of staff will quickly throw himself into the breach as the main White House link with the upcoming House and Senate investigations of the Iran-contra scandal.
Moreover, two of Baker's closest friends on Capitol Hill are Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.), the ranking member of the Select House Committee, and Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), the ranking member of the Senate panel.
Sources also said they expect Baker to take a sharp interest in arms control policy, even though the subject falls more formally under the responsibility of National Security Adviser Frank C. Carlucci.
Baker had planned to make arms control a dominant plank in his presidential campaign platform had he gone ahead with the race, as he had almost decided to do when Reagan asked him to join the White House at its moment of crisis.
White House aides and Baker associates said Saturday that it was too early to speculate publicly on what further staff shake-up would follow Baker's arrival as the new chief of staff. Sources close to the former senator, however, said there had already been discussion of bringing a longtime Baker friend and political ally, A. B. Culvahouse, into the Administration as White House counsel, replacing Peter J. Wallison. Culvahouse, who was returning from vacation, could not be reached for comment.
The sources, who refused to be identified, said it is also likely that Griscom, who served as Baker's press secretary in the Senate majority leader's office, will join Baker at the White House, perhaps as his top assistant. According to these informants, Baker broached the possibility of moving Griscom into the press office, but the President refused to move Marlin Fitzwater, who only days ago replaced Larry Speakes as the principal White House spokesman.
Leaving the White House after the meetings Saturday, Griscom declined to say whether he and Cannon would be joining the staff.
"There are good people here," he said, "but it's also assumed that a chief of staff coming in does bring some people in with him. We're assessing the operation right now."
Labeled 'the Mice'
It was widely assumed that the four staff members closest to Regan--collectively labeled "the Mice" by White House reporters--would be replaced by Baker.
They are W. Dennis Thomas, an assistant to the President in the area of policy and politics; Thomas C. Dawson, executive assistant to the chief of staff; David L. Chew, the staff secretary; and Alfred H. Kingon, a presidential assistant.
Kingon already has been nominated to become U.S. ambassador to the Common Market, and Dawson is rumored to be in line to become U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica. Dawson and Kingon were Treasury Department officials during Regan's four years as Treasury secretary before moving to the White House in February, 1985.
Griscom, Cannon and Culvahouse are among a group of about a dozen trusted Baker associates who have been close to the former senator and who had been preparing for a Baker-for-President campaign until the surprise announcement that Baker would replace Regan.
Two of those mentioned Saturday as possibilities for White House posts were William Hildenbrand, the longtime secretary to the Senate, and Howard Liebengood, who worked for Baker on the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973. He was later counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Hildenbrand and Liebengood are now partners in a lobbying and consulting business with Martin Gold, another former Baker aide.
One of the more delicate challenges before the new staff chief, sources said Saturday, will be to make sure Reagan receives the full credit for any recovery the President and the White House are able to make from the Iran-contra imbroglio.
Won't Seek Limelight
"He is going to make the President look awfully good," another former Senate aide said Saturday. "He's not going down to the White House to get the limelight."
Although Baker loyally supported Reagan's programs in the Senate, over the years he has been regarded as one of the leaders of the Republican Party's moderate wing.
In 1976, when Reagan challenged incumbent Republican President Gerald R. Ford for the party's nomination, Baker served as chairman of Ford's campaign in Tennessee. But when Reagan campaigned in the state, he and his wife were invited to spend a weekend as guests in Baker's home. The relationship remained a warm one even when Baker infuriated Republican conservatives by helping Jimmy Carter push the Panama Canal treaties through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to ratification.