Once again, a presidential chief of staff is at the center of a political storm. But John H. Sununu's frequent-flier woes don't seem to be evoking much sympathy, even at the White House.

Democrats are smirking at disclosures of Sununu's repeated use of Air Force jets - including trips to Colorado ski resorts and to Boston to see his dentist. The White House defense of his 77 trips has been lukewarm at best.The flap is just the latest public controversy involving the combative former New Hampshire governor. He has locked horns with fellow Republicans, angered civil rights leaders, publicly insulted congressional leaders of both parties and infuriated budget negotiators.

Like Alexander Haig and Donald T. Regan before him, Sununu has made enemies both in Congress and within the administration for his brash and often imperial demeanor.

Haig, who was President Nixon's final chief of staff and President Reagan's secretary of state, is often remembered for his "I'm in control here" declaration at the White House after Reagan was shot in March 1981.

And Regan, strong-willed and autocratic, alienated much of the White House staff as well as first lady Nancy Reagan before he was fired by Reagan.

A former captain of industry, Regan used to insist on being ceremoniously introduced for appearances by an offstage announcer, just like the president.

While Sununu hasn't gone that far, his current predicament is generating more than a few chuckles from inside the White House, where he otherwise rules with an iron fist.

Complaints of arrogance also were leveled at H.R. Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff before Haig and a key figure in the Watergate scandal. And President Carter's chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, so angered then-House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill, D-Mass., that O'Neill deliberately mispronounced his name as "Hannibal Jerkin."

Sununu has been publicly silent since his travel habits were disclosed last weekend in news articles.

At a picture-taking session in the Rose Garden on Tuesday between President Bush and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Sununu could be seen in the background.

Later, as Bush walked across the South Lawn to board his helicopter for a trip to Annapolis, Md., and again upon Bush's return, Sununu was not at his side - one of the few times he hasn't been.

A Sununu appearance on Tuesday, as the White House was releasing the travel documents, would have generated a cacophony of questions from reporters to Sununu on his travel.

The Sununu controversy has had one side effect that isn't unwelcome at the White House.

It has distracted attention from Bush's wavering on the issue of relief for Iraqi Kurds and other refugees - from first refusing to help them to a major direct intervention.

This week, questions about Sununu's travels have dominated spokesman Marlin Fitzwater's daily news briefings. But Fitzwater hasn't had much to say. His office released the records of Sununu's trips and those of national security adviser Brent Scowcroft without elaboration. Scowcroft's non-business travel was minuscule compared to Sununu's.

"I don't want to advertise the package," Fitzwater said Tuesday. "We'll put all the material out and you can take a look at it."

Fitzwater did say that Sununu and Scowcroft needed to use military planes equipped with devices that prevent telephone conversations from being overheard.

It's usually members of Congress that get slammed for taxpayer-paid travel aboard military jets.

There was the 12-day visit to South America last spring that Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., conducted last spring for members of his House Ways and Means Committee and their spouses - at a reported cost to taxpayers of $100,000.

And there were news accounts of Rep. Charles Wilson, D-Texas, allegedly threatening the Pentagon with a funding cut after a girlfriend was refused permission to board a military plane in Pakistan in 1988.

Perhaps for that reason, Democrats have been relatively subdued in their criticism of Sununu - perhaps fearing that too much attention could lead to a wider-scale inquiry into taxpayer-subsidized travel.

And so far, there's no indication that Sununu's travel has displeased the person who matters the most, his boss.

Bush, a globetrotter himself, has repeatedly defended his chief of staff. Asked Tuesday if Bush was angry at Sununu, Fitzwater would only say: "Press will be press."

And Regan may have wound up at odds with Nancy Reagan, but Sununu seems to be in no such trouble with first lady Barbara Bush.

"I love the president's chief of staff," she told a group of reporters last week. "I personally think John Sununu is one of the brightest, sweetest men I've ever known.

"He's really got me buffaloed," she added. "I think he's just a pussycat."