OUT OF THE Iowa night sky they come, trim as fighters, whining like table saws, racing down into the dreams of West Union, Iowa, pop. 2,654. Four Beech King Air turboprops roll to a stop beside a blistered shed. Photographers and reporters get out; a TV executive; a guy with a wire down his shirt. And then the candidate himself, smiling, shaking hands, moving toward the lead car, looking exuberant and likable as an eagle scout.

George Bush and his suddenly swollen national campaign have hit the frozen fields of Fayette County.

Over at West Union Country Club, a couple hundred Republican voters pulled from four adjoining counties are waiting. They munch chips and dip. The West Union "Ambassadors," in red blazers and nametags, are attending to last-minute details. The weather is bad, and there is wrestling at the high school down the road, but Bush has drawn pretty well anyway. He's drawn considerably better than he might have six months ago, when he was still an asterisk in the polls, when only his wife and his mother and maybe his dog, C. Fred Chambers, would have given him more than a laughing shot at the presidency.

Washington, D.C., May 1, 1979: There were maybe 150 people in the room, knights of the keyboard mostly with a heavy-lidded sense of deja vu. "Ladies and gentlemen, I am a candidate for president of the United States," says George Bush.

Afterward, piling out, one newsman says this to another: "So what'dja think?"

"I thought he showed verve."

"Yeah, his campaign might have peaked right here."

He arrives now, at the head of a mini-motorcade, entering through the basement, slugging off his black woolen topcoat. He jogs lightly up the back stairs, holding just below the top step. A local politician is finishing his introduction. The candidate's face is washed and smooth. His muted herringbone suit that he had made in Peking five years ago, at Hongdu tailors, is buttoned in the middle. His hair is combed flat, plastered almost, with tiny curls of it lipping back over his ears. This is his third Iowa stop since mid-afternoon. This morning he was in New Hampshire. He looks fresh as rainwater.

So listen to him now. Listen as he stands lean and clean and erect, just as he must have stood 32 years ago, when he came out of Yale, a Phi Beta Kappa and captain of the baseball team, to hunt up life's fortunes. (The fortunes turned out to be in Texas oil.) "The momentum is there," he says. "It is rolling. I can feel it."

The heels are clicked together, wedging outward at 45-degree angles. The pants are drawn up over his woolen socks like an earnest farmboy. The hands are pulsing over top the microphone, grabbing familiar fistfuls of empty air and strangling them back to his chest. This is George Bush's best, most studied gesture. He has others, too -- a pushing-out motion with his right hand while the body dips in tandem; a series of finger movements with his left hand that, after a while, begin to look like sign language. Actually, his New York speech coach wanted him to forget the gestures, but he overrode her. Thinks they give him passion.

"I was a precinct chairman, I was a county chairman, I was a national chairman," he says, going into one of his most familiar riffs. "I know, and have known all along inside me, that I can win this thing. The reason I will do better than any of these national polls can possibly indicate is because of my organization. I have the best organization in this campaign. I feel -- I am absolutely certain of it -- if I can come out of Iowa with a forward momentum, I will win this nomination and I will be the NEXT PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES."

The high-timbered, slightly combative, Eastern voice is already a little hoarse.

He describes why he wants to be president. This is another riff, only tonight it's tailored a tad to the occasion. "It's a complicated darn thing. My dad, he was a great guy. He served 10 years in the Senate from Connecticut. He inculcated into his sons, just as you do, a sense of integrity, a concept of service. You know, people come up to me and they say, 'George, why do you want to be president?" But they don't say it as if they mean, 'Aren't you lucky!' They say it like 'Are you crazy?'"

The words are running together like people trying to get off a boat.

He tries to summon the Land, black out there, beyond the windows, rolling under the Iowa night: "I know about the cycle of seasons -- the snow, the green, the upturned fields, your sense of family. These things will make me a better president. I just know it."

It connects.

So does his impressive record of experience; he always gets it in. Two-term Texas representative, ambassador to the U.N., chairman of the Republican National Committee -- "in one of the toughest moments in its history, Watergate" -- head of the U.S. Mission to Peking, director of the CIA. He omits he ran for the Senate twice from Texas and lost. Sometimes during these litanies, his head wags in a manner faintly reminiscent of Richard Nixon, doubtless unintended.

Tonight, a little something extra: "I was shot down in the Pacific at 20. Er, not exactly the greatest criterion for being elected president, I'll admit." (Earlier, on the plane, he had said, "The trick is not to let your mouth get ahead of your a--.")

He doesn't volunteer his specific positions on issues -- that he is against gun control, that he is afraid to "codify" gay rights, that he is pro-ERA and anti-abortion, even though he won't support legislation opposing abortion. Talking specifics can get you into trouble. He'll meet these things if they come up. Some of them do, and when he says he is against gun control, a British newsman from the back of the room cries, "For shame. For shame." For now, George Bush is content to dazzle them with platitudes.

It adds up to a credible, somewhat rousing performance. George Bush on the stump is no Eve Dirksen. He's not even a Pat Paulsen. What he is is the good soldier, gaining ground inch by grueling inch, proving to the disbelieving but no longer mocking world out there that the race may not necessarily be to the swift . . . .

A parable: The Hare was once boasting of his speed before the other animals. "I have never yet been beaten," said he, "when I put forth my full speed. I challenge anyone here to race with me."

The Tortoise said quietly: "I accept your challenge."

So a course was fixed and a start was made. The Hare darted almost out of sight at once, but soon stopped and, to show his contempt, lay down to have a nap. The Tortoise plodded on and plodded on, and when the Hare awoke from his nap, he saw the Tortoise just near the winning post and could not run up in time. Then said the Tortoise:

"Plodding wins the race." --The Fables of Aesop

Since Jimmy Carter, of course, the role of the turtle in the great soap-box derby of presidential politics is not so inglorious. There is no hard promise yet, only hints, that this year's turtle may indeed turn out to be 55-year-old George Herbert Walker Bush.

But the 2 percent jokes are over now. In the latest Gallup poll, Bush has moved up to 7. George Bush, candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, has ended up thus far surprising everybody but himself. Eight and a half months after his formal announcement at the National Press Club, he is not only still on the course, you can see him coming around the far turn. Here he comes now: Plop. Plop. Plop. The pace isn't exactly Indy-fast; the burning rubber you smell isn't from his tires. But there he is, to the crow-eating disbelief of several syndicated pundits.

This is a story of the man who wants to be the turtle at mid-plod.

Even before his formal announcement in Washington on May 1, Bush had already been in 42 states since September, coming on talk shows between the ads for onion dip and whitewalls, selling his likable self and his record of experience to the electorate. --The Washington Post, May 24, 1979

"Yeah, the turtle's kind of an ugly reptile," says George Bush, grinning, the fist lightly pounding a palm. "But he's got persistence. Not too charismatic, but persistent. Determined. Successful."

Then he says, "I'm less dull than you think I am. I've got more charisma than some of these 'objective' reporters have written. People I've led in business and people I was in college with know that. They think I'm a charismatic so-and-so."

Somehow, George Bush seems to have an uncanny ability to resist recognition. You keep forgetting what he looks like, even if you've just seen him on the tube with a lineup of other candidates. He is the man of 10,000 Republican faces, all of them belonging to either the board chairman of Amalgamated Technologies or the senior partner of Clagget, Clagget, Clagget and Brown. Everything about him -- his haircut, the suits, the muted ties -- is safe. Studying him is a little like studying nuns and babies: They all seem identical. Somehow, he looks an odd admixture of Sargent Shriver, Thomas Eagleton and Jimmy Stewart. Maybe the problem is there's no identifiable gimmick. He has going for him neither peanuts nor Camelot, John Connally has the Texas ghost of LBJ and a flowing mane; Howard Baker his accent and folksiness. George is just plain George, out of Phillips Academy. He is the Connecticut Yankee from Houston. The Texan without a Stetson.

None of which should disqualify him for the presidency. Yet showbiz counts. Ask why he feels he isn't more known, considering all his jobs, and he says quickly: "because I didn't play it for the gallery or the press. Do you know I had one of the most respected journalists in the country tell me while I was at CIA that the way to really get exposure was to dribble out a little sensational information? Well, I refused to do that. If I had, would I have had the same credibility among my peers? Would I have had my own self-respect?"

He stops, chews his lip. "And even if I had played some of it to the grandstand, I'm not sure I would have been a combination of -- who shall we say? -- Andy Young and Pat Moynihan? Who else can we throw in there?"

Three glimmers: George Bush pronounces "rather" as "rahther." He is almost unfailingly embarrassed by applause. (He begins talking before it dies, trying to shush it down.) He has little inclination for introspection. "What is the most frustrating thing about your campaign these days?" a reporter idly wonders. "I can't think of anything frustrating. Sorry, can't help you there."

Three voices:

Pete Teeley, George Bush's communications head: "It's one thing to say, 'Have you heard of George Bush?" Well, we've licked that one. But it's another to say, 'who is he and what did he do?' That's where we are now."

Jim Baker, campaign director, Houston neighbor, fierce tennis opponent: "The truth of the matter is we haven't changed our strategy one whit. It was never an original strategy. It's what you read in 'Marathon' about Jimmy Carter. We read that book. Damn carefully." (Baker, last time out, ran Jerry Ford's campaign.)

Barbara Bush, 54, wife of the candidate: "It's done exactly what George told me it would: gradually grow. I believed him in everything else he's ever done, so I decided to believe him in this one, too."

There are any number of indices to the growth of George Bush's campaign. A recent Gallup poll has him at 7 percent, up from 2. George Bush can't go into New Hampshire anymore without a dozen reporters lapping in his wake; as recently as early fall he could go across the state like a pots-and-pans drummer.

In Iowa, where bellwether precinct caucuses are scheduled for Jan. 21, the latest state poll has him at 14 percent, up from 1 percent in August; the others are clogged in a pack. Bush is second in Iowa now only to Ronald Reagan, who holds at 50 percent. The Iowa caucuses are the ones four years ago that cannon-fired a one-term Georgia governor into the national glare. There have been a half-dozen straw votes in Iowa so far -- and Bush has won them all.

But such are the precarious fortunes of a man running for president -- even a turtle -- that now George Bush has to worry about being a victim of sudden hype in Iowa: the great expectations syndrome. It is unlikely he will win in Iowa, though that is his impossible dream. Says Jim Baker: "I buy second place as a win. If, we get within 35 points of Reagan, we've won."

Politicians have a strange way of computing numbers.

The crowds are bigger these days.So is the money: December's fundraising budget was slated for $185,000; $850,000 came in, fattest month to date. There are TV cameras waiting at airports now. There is, overall, a sense of rolling, swelling entourage, at least in key primary states. As of last week, the candidate had his own specially outfitted plane. He will have it at least through New Hampshire.

It's all a far cry from last summer, or even two months ago, when George Bush and his aide-bag man, David Bates, could be found riding in the back of 727s. David Bates, 28, a lawyer, of affluent Houstonians, is to George Bush what Greg Schneiders was to Jimmy Carter in his first, loneliest days. David Bates looks cloned from George Bush.

"I can still wend my way through airport lobbies without getting harassed," Bush says, self-mocking. Over Christmas, the candidate flew to Hawaii. He went through four time zones and stayed a little over 24 hours. How was it? "Oh, there was a knot of enthusiasm for me."

"Hey, George," says Pete Teeley, "I saw a 'Bush for President' bumper sticker in the Virgin Islands.

"They got any delegates down there?"

There are a lot of theories as to why George Bush's campaign has caught fire. The Iowa straw votes certainly helped. So did a vote two months ago in Maine. Howard Baker had just announced; he was expected to take the Maine poll in a walk. In fact, he took a planeload of reporters up to Maine to help him drink in the victory. George Bush won. Not long after came a vote in Florida. John Connally had reportedly spent $300,000; Bush spent $40,000. He finished third, only 74 votes behind his fellow Texan. That may have been the psychological turning point. The press stopped laughing.

On her way out, Mrs. Prescott Bush, the candidate's mother, stops to talk. She lives in Greenwich, Conn. "I was apprehensive at first because George can get tired. Actually, I think he'll win the whole thing."

Back on the bus, a reporter who has overheard this, says: "I think he ate the whole thing." -- The Washington Post, May 24, 1979

Ask Bush if he senses with his own internal barometer that the pressure is rising, and Bush will raise his voice and his hand, shimmy the latter, and say: "Little bit." Just the other day, he says, he was coming in from Boston and four people on the plane recognized him. "Two of them were from Maine, a third was a prof from Harvard who reminded me we'd met in China, and some other guy."

He counts them like rubies.

"I figure I've gotten the amount of attention I've deserved, which was nil at the beginning. I've got to go a step at a time -- like a hurdler. And, yes, I know I eventually have to have broad recognition . . . because I have infinitesimal recognition now."

Muscatine, Iowa. ("Sounds like a cheap wine," says one of the press boys.) The candidate is facing a rally at the local Holiday Inn. At the end of his speech, a weathered man in a new suit raises his hand and says: "I want to tell you this. Federal Aid is just like going around South America to get to California. And don't you forget it." The old man says this and shuffles off. "Uh, that's a pretty good point there," Bush says to his back, even though this wasn't the point he had been making.

Clinton, Iowa, astride the Mississippi, the Shot Tower Inn. Five hundred people have crammed into what is essentially a pizza parlor. The candidate from Texas via Milton, Mass., takes out his glasses prefatory to reading some figures. Only thing: He can't find the paper the figures are written on. He fumbles in his pockets. "Oh, damn, I forgot them again," he says with a helpless grin. He goes right on. Six months ago, that might have discombobulated him.

George Bush has new glasses these days. His wife got him to throw away his half-frames: Too professorial. The watchband, though, is still preppy-perfect: red-white-and-blue nylon. New Haven and Cambridge are full of wrists like that. And names like this: "Poppy." Poppy is George Bush's nickname. Everybody in the family calls him that. His mother gave it to him as a toddler, after his grandfather.

"Well, I try awfully hard, I really do, but it's hard not to call him that," sighs Barbara Bush, a warm, handsome woman who may be George Bush's secret weapon.

He is talking about the time he had bleeding ulcers. He is in the air between Chicago and Davenport, snug in his chartered 8-seater King Air. In a half hour, he will touch down in Davenport, his first Iowa stop today, where Jim Leach, the district's representative, will endorse him in a corn-crib.

Though he is relaxed, confident, gregarious this morning, the guard is still up. There is a wall. Which isn't busted by the button he suddenly brings forth. The button says CIA -- "Certainly I'm Available." "Some smart ass," he says, "See what I have to put up with? A friend of mine is trying to buy them all up."

The ulcers: "I passed out colder than a wedge at the Savory Hotel in London. Naked, lying there on the floor of my room trying to reach the buzzers. I think there was one for the valet, one for the bar. Finally I limped downstairs to a doctor who said, 'Must be a touch of the flu, old boy.' Said to take some ginger ale and not eat anything. Which is just the opposite, I think, of what I should have done.

"When I got back to Houston, I went to see a specialist. The ulcers had already started to heal over. He told me 'Listen, don't worry about the things you have no control over.' I said, 'I'm paying this guy for this?" I went home and thought about it for the next three months. In six months, they were gone. That was in 1960. Now I can go out and eat Tex-Mex and maybe have to take some Alka-Seltzer or Gelusil, that's all."

Like a lot of George Bush stories, this one reaches for inspiration.

He talks alot about the brutal schedule, the strategy of stalking the country county by county. "The scedule's been intense, it really has. I think the only relevance is this: the demands of the presidency will be even greater. You look at the pictures of Jimmy Carter, and they are extraordinary. Well, the thing I've learned out here is I can cope. Hell, there's only six months to the convention. I'm two thirds of the way home."

He is sitting with his hand propped against his jaw. Two tanned fingers work up his cheek. He looks ruddy, youthful, rich, wiry, connected. But most especially confident.

A corrspondent for Time wonders if he isn't just a little frustrated inside that the numbers are still so low."You're behind the power curve," he says. "You haven't been to Iowa with me, or across the top of New Hampshire to see the improvement."

The Beech is coming down. Black, rich earth cut like quilt patters. Low, rumbling sky. Pete Teeley, in the front of the plane, hands out a press release headlined. "Congressman Jim Leach Endorses George Bush."

"Better get this on the wire in a hurry," says columnist Joe Kraft. Even Bush grins.

Issues. The manner is what's really moderate. Scratch George Bush and you may find an orthodox conservative. Though he dispises the labels, Bush thinks he is closer to a moderate-conservative. He would balance the budget within 100 days of becoming president. He is against national health insurance. He wants to break the shackles on the CIA and FBI. Above all, he would be fiscally sound. The key, he thinks, is to keep the growth of federal spending just below the rate of inflation. He isn't sure we need a draft -- but he wouldn't be afraid to start one, a fair one, "not one where the ghetto kid carries a rifle and the rich kid is off getting a PhD."

George Bush's campaign has a fulltime issues man now. His name is Stef Halper and, among other things, he prepped Bob Dole for his debate against Walter Mondale last time around. Halper, an innocent sort with an Oxford degree, joined the Bush staff indefinitely this fall. Though he brims with ideas, his biggest problem is getting access to the candidate. Most every time he asks Pete Teeley if this is his "leg" to sit next to Bush, Teeley says, "Later. Later."

The staff is really "plugged into the info net," Halper says. "Strong links to the think tanks," especially the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the American Enterprise Institute. Also a lot of former foreign service guys pass along information to Bush.But no worry: "We have no links to the Agency."

"I can't come to Iowa without thinking of Dorothy and the 'Wizard of Oz,'" Halper says merrily, for once off the state of the nation.

"Uh, that was Kansas," says a scribe.

Roy B. Keppy's hog-and-corn farm outside Davenport. Photographers swarming on hay bales like Yanks taking Pork Chop Hill. Reporters milling around a giant International Harvester tractor with an enclosed cab: What will they think of next? The lawn is full of cars. Mrs. Keppy is inside making sandwiches for the invaders. "This is a terrific idea," says a staffer.

The press conference takes place in Keppy's cornfield. Keppy in sports coat and tie and a milk-white forehead, where his field cap is usually cocked, is no slouch at politics. Last campaign, he headed a Farmers for Ford group. He is one of American's leading hog farmers. At the Scott Co. fair last summer, he and his boys got the ribbon for a yield of 212 bushels of corn per acre.

He introduces the candidate now. At his feet is a galvanized tub in which five piglets are snuggled. They squeal to Bush's rhetoric.

"I'm very pleased to be on Roy's farm, he begins. Just then, corn kernels fall through the roof nearly hitting him on the head. Everybody yuks. Everybody is having a good time.

Afterward, the show about to move on, Bush reaches for one of the piglets. "Show me the grip," he says to Keppy. What was that right-hand grip? Gosh, they're warm little critters."

Inside, Mrs. Keppy, a large, unadorned woman watching perfect strangers wolf down her sandwiches, says: "When they said they wanted to have it out here, Roy said okay. But that if he made president, Mr. Bush would have to come back. That's in the deal.

Barbara Bush, formerly Barbara Pierce of Rye, N.Y., has been in the deal since 1945. That's when she wed Navy Lieut. George Bush. Three years later, when George had his economics degree, the two went off to west Texas. It was the Big Adventure -- with a net under them.

"Well, I mean. George was a Phi Beta Kappa," says Mrs. Bush. "It wasn't exactly like we were going to a foreign country. We could have come home."

She laughs at herself. "We were such babies. Do you know we had never seen girl cheerleaders at a football game? Do you have any idea what a football game in 100-degree weather in Midland, Tex., is like?"

She is a strong, forthright woman with a jaunty smile. You get the feeling she'd walk from Boulder to Birmingham for her husband. "There are only six things in this world you can't criticize -- George Bush and my children. I'm a mother hen that way."

The legend about those early days in west Texas is that George and Barabara lived next door to a prostitute.True? "Honey, we shared the same bathroom." Later, after a stint in California, the Bushes moved to a cheap motel in downtown Houston; now they live in the Memorial-Tanglewood area of the city, which is to Houston what Foxhall Road is to Washington. Her garden these days, Mrs. Bush says, is Little Orphan Annie: She's on the campaign trail nearly as much as her husband. The two have separate circuits.

The only thing that gives her pause about this run for the roses, she says, "is the terrible thing it does to your family." If you can't stop them, join them. All of the Bushes are out there beating the bushes for dad.

Marvin, who took the fall semester off from the University of Virginia, has been in Iowa, knocking up and down the state in a Chevy Blazer with "George Bush" license plates. Neil is in New Hampshire. Jeb, fluent in Spanish, went down to Florida before the straw vote there and signed up two dozen delegates in two days from Miami's Little Havanna. Dorothy, the youngest, the only girl, enrolled in Katharine Gibbs secretarial course in Boston. She stayed nine months and hated it. But she wanted to be comfortable with her memo-writing and telephone-answering in the Bush Boston headquarters.

George Bush Jr., the eldest is sticking mostly to his oil business in Odessa. Last year he ran for Congress unsuccessfully. Recently he came to Iowa for a two-day blitz. Some of Iowa's gasahol fanatics didn't cotton to his crude-oil talk.

"We're behind in Iowa, there's no doubt of that," says Marvin Bush, who is lanky, curly-headed, a little gawky, and disproportionately handsome. He looks more Kennedyesque than Bushian. "Look, I don't always agree with the guy. I don't like his stand on abortion. But he works his tail off. He deserves to be president."

Des Moines. After two days in small towns, this is like coming into Jerusalem. Correspondent Bruce Morton and a CBS crew are out on the tarmac. The four King Air "bushhawks" pull up to the terminal in sequence. A Saudi prince couldn't arrive better.

The candidate consents to a mini-interview. Bruce Morton wants to know Bush's reaction to the president's Soviet grain slash. Bush runs on. Jim Baker is trying to get him to cut it short. Bush walks around to Teeley, gives him the slash-across-the-throat sign: GET HIM OUTTA THERE. George is still talking. Finally, Teeley hooks him by the arm.

That night, in the debate in the Des Moines Civic Center, Robert Dole and John Connally are cards. Phil Crane quotes Brandies. John Anderson quotes C. Vann Woodward. Howard Baker is full of aphorism. And George Bush, sitting on the extreme right, seems what he ever may have been -- good old dependable George, not so charismatic maybe, but sure, steady, reliable, experienced, like the boat of state herself, a creation somewhere between Booth Tarkington and Grant Wood, your genuine Beefeater, two-dollar-Nassau, mahogany Republican. Who wants very badly to be president.