Bush, Gorbachev May Meet Before Christmas : Diplomacy: Holding talks before the year's end could benefit both of the superpower leaders. But it's far from a done deal.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a reflection of the sudden acceleration of the evolving U.S.-Soviet relationship, senior White House aides are discussing the prospect of a meeting before Christmas between President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, an Administration official said Monday.

White House officials demonstrated extreme sensitivity about public discussion of such a meeting before it has been set. They refused to comment about whether the Soviets have been involved in discussions of a pre-Christmas meeting.

But one Administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said White House assistants are reviewing the merits of such a meeting.

Secretary of State James A. Baker III met with Soviet Ambassador Yuri V. Dubinin on Monday, ostensibly to discuss Central America. It was not disclosed if the discussion also dealt with a December meeting.

If the two leaders do meet in December, it would represent a dramatically speeded up pace in superpower summitry. The Administration official said, however, that such a meeting would not throw off a timetable set in September. That was when Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze announced in Jackson Hole, Wyo., that Bush and Gorbachev would meet sometime in the late spring or early summer in a summit conference.

With that timetable in mind, the official said, "if they were to get together prior to the spring, we wouldn't call it a summit. We'd call it a meeting."

In the White House view, such a meeting would offer considerable benefits to both sides.

For Bush, it would offer a highly visible demonstration that he is ready to move ahead on a central element of U.S. foreign policy--relations with the Soviet Union. Bush began his Administration with a lengthy review that brought criticism that he was too cautious in his approach to Soviet changes.

For the Soviet leader--struggling with demands for greater economic and political progress stemming from the tides of reform that he unleashed--the meeting could provide a platform for demonstrating to skeptical audiences back home the Soviets' improved international standing.

The Administration has, in recent weeks, found itself in the midst of an increasingly public dispute over how it should respond to the evolving political reforms in the Soviet Union and the shifts that they have brought in Eastern Europe.

Bush and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, have pursued a publicly cautious approach: encouraging the changes and voicing U.S. support for them but also expressing little more than hope that they will succeed.

Baker has been more publicly upbeat, using the uncertainty of the situation in the Soviet Union to justify greater efforts to improve U.S.-Soviet relations.

Times staff writer Doyle McManus contributed to this story.

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