"Major-league disarray" is how one senior administration official sums up the turmoil within the Bush White House.

Despite overall public approval for President Bush's job performance, there is a growing sense inside the White House that the administration is in "free fall" these days, as this aide put it.A string of embarrassments prompted some Republicans last week to compare the situation at the White House to the worst days of the Carter administration. Those events included:

-The decision by an assistant secretary of education to put the administration on record in opposition to college scholarships based on race. That far-reaching and controversial decree apparently was issued without consulting Bush or his top aides, who belatedly ordered a review.

-Former "drug czar" William J. Bennett's reversal of his earlier acceptance of Bush's offer to become chairman of the Republican National Committee. Bennett said that he changed his mind because senior White House aides had misinformed him about possible legal restrictions on his ability to earn outside income in the party job.

-An effort by White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu to block the reappointment of Robert Clarke as comptroller of the currency. Though Clarke, a tough regulator, was reappointed, bankers said the Sununu move raised serious questions about the administration's commitment to strong regulation at a time of increasing worry over a national bank crisis.

-The undignified firing of Secretary of Educatioin Lauro Cavazos, the nation's first Latino Cabinet member. Summoned to the White House by Sununu and ordered to quit by month's end, Cavazos resigned immediately; his letter of resignation pointedly omitted the usual thanks to Bush for having been allowed to serve the nation.

Those events, which took place against a backdrop of continued internal bickering among presidential assistants over the course of administration policy and political strategy, have deepened the "bunker mentality" at the White House, according to Bush aides and party leaders.

"There's nobody you can get on the phone (at the White House) who isn't taking Seconal. They're all demoralized," a Republican official said Friday. "We look like a banana republic."

Mitchell E. Daniels, a former Reagan aide who spent part of last week at the White House, said that he found "a lot" of fighting among his friends and former colleagues.

Bush himself, said to be absorbed almost completely by the Persian Gulf crisis, was described by aides as "dispirited and disappointed" over the sloppy handling of the Bennett and minority-scholarship decisions.

At least one longtime Bush aide dismissed the setbacks as an unfortunate confluence of events and predicted that the latest round of criticism would quickly fade. Others were not as certain.

Republican politicians pointed out, and polls confirmed, that the gulf crisis was largely responsible for keeping Bush's popularity high. An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found that a majority of Americans support Bush's handling of events in the Middle East, though approval of his performance on foreign policy has sunk to the lowest level of his presidency.

On the home front, however, most Americans, by a wide margin, see the country headed in the wrong direction and a majority disapproves of Bush's handling of the economy, the poll found.

"George Bush is so absorbed in the gulf right now that he has really almost abdicated in other areas," said a well-placed Republican observer who supports the president. "Politically speaking, I think this administration is in critical trouble. If the economy comes out OK, fine. But I think there's a definite lack of credibility from a standpoint of does he really have a grip on things."

Many blame White House chief of staff Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor whose imperious style continues to antagonize many fellow Republicans, particularly senators and congressmen alienated by his actions during last summer's budget negotiations.

"He's made it harder for himself to be effective, and a lot of these feelings, both within the administration and outside it, run deep," said Daniels, who describes himself as a Sununu fan. "The lack of trust and animosity has not been overreported."

Sununu almost defiantly shrugs off the criticism. In a National Press Club speech last week, derisively termed his "state of the union" address by critics, Sununu insisted that reports of his strong conflicts with members of Congress and others were "fiction, not fact."

A prominent Republican sometimes called on by Bush for advice agreed that the mood around the White House is bleak this holiday season.

"People are down," he said. "They've had some setbacks. But I don't think they're anywhere near as down as they were in October, a few days before the election," when it appeared that Republican candidates would suffer heavy losses.

"Now they've had the wind taken out of their sails, and they feel like they're starting from scratch," he said.