George Bush, heaving only slightly from a three-mile jog, moves through the home of former New Hampshire governor Hugh Gregg, his chief New England backer. Bush showers, talks on the phone, cracks open a beer, leans back on the sun porch and watches the snow melt in the woods beyond. Bush wants the presidency, wants it badly: Two years of his life have gone into the quest.

It is a few days before the primary and he is not altogether comfortable with his front-runner status and the constant scrutiny that comes with it. He talks of how he's tightened up. "I am somewhat on the defensive . . . not wanting to make the classic error. You just don't want to make a tremendous mistake. I've decided to err on the side of caution."

But George Bush was reckoning that bright winter day without the on-slaught of Granite State Madness -- a quadrennial outbreak that dumps millions of dollars and millions more words, opinion polls, promises, blasts and counterblasts on the suspecting inhabitants of New Hampshire.

The madness also afficts that handful of presidential hopefuls who are at the center of all the attention -- as was evidenced by the crescendo of fury leveled Saturday night at Cautious George Bash -- who may have made the mistake he feared in a high school gym.

For the first and probably last time in this race, Rep. John Anderson -- the the great white-haired hope of the liberals -- was united on Saturday with conservatives Rep. Phil Crante and sen. Bob Dole and moderate Sen. Howard Baker. They all felt George Bush had successfully "stiffied" them, frozen them out of that night's debate, sponsored by the Nashua Telegraph, between Ronald Reagan and Bush. Since Reagan was paying for the evening, he invited the other Republican candidates to take part; the newpaper-sponsors held out for the two-man show and Bush was aloof enough through the near-slapstick negotiations to leave the left-out candidates fuming.

In the band room of the gym, the four vowed revenge as Reagan and bush droned on, down the hall. It was the stuff of divorce courts, not the honeymoon they had been playing out all week, and it was breaking Reagon's 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill, of another Republican."

Anderson: "Clearly the responsibility of this whole travesty rests with Mr. Bush."

Baker, who had all week been preaching "civility and unity," was so mad that his nostrils flared. Pulling from his Wategate-investigator repertoire, he spoke of "the most flagrant effort to reinstitute closed-door politics I have even seen.

"Dole stormed at Bush: "He wants to be a king. We don't want a king, we want a president!" Dole, who can be counted on to throw one in the clinches, had learned down and whispered a stiletto departure line to Bush just before they all stalked out of the gym. "There'll be another day, George."

The next day -- as reporters and voters sifted through charges and countercharge and people in such remote places as the nation's capital tried to figure out just what want on from late bulletins and snippets on national TV -- the quartet was still warbling.

"Rawest political act I've seen in 15 years of politics," spewed Baker on "Meet the Press," Dole stuck the stiletto in further. "He may well be finished after today's voting, but he will leave no unity when he goes. I won't break my back for someone who won't talk to me. Bush can't unity the party by treating us like dirt."

Granite State Madness, meet cautious George Bush. Cautious George, meet the madness. The Tiptoer TRIPS

What all this means to today's voters in New Hampshire and on down the primary road is uncertain; it may be just too intramural to matter much. But it was the first mistake in Bush's campaign, after he spent a week tiptoeing around. Reagan, only ahead by one point in the latest polls, was hardly happier, as Bush's aides cried foul. "It was all a set-up," they said.

Reagan hoped the brouhaha would take the edge of Bush's surge in the closing hours. John Sears, his chief aide, leaned against a locker in the high-school corridor, grinning "we're just party unifiers."

After the Federal Election Commission had ruled that the Nashua Telegraph newspaper could not put on a two-man debate, Reagan, who had initiated the challenge debate, forked over $3,500. Then, by inviting the pack to the debate, Reagan opened the trap door for Bush.

The "Band Room Press Conference," and the fallout from it, constituted the major event on this last week of madness in New Hampshire, as the seven Republican candidates careened from auditorium to press conference, debate to man-in-the-street handshakes, grasping for votes in today's all-important primary.

Bush insisted he was only following his original commitment. Still, for those not sold on Bush, his reaction fit nicely into the "clean finger-nailed Republican elitist" image being hung on Bush: the Skull and Bones Yalie who can't be bothered with his fellow sprinters.

What angers the candidates most is the way they were spurned by Bush. "We tried to meet with him twice," says Bakers, getting angry all over again. If Bush has something to learn from the debate debacle, it's to not treat his colleagues too lightly -- expecially when they include the minority leader of the Senate. The Plot Thickens

But on the eve of the primary, the plot thickens. Crane is now mad at Reagan, charging that his aides "sandbagged" the four when they called them to join the debate. Crane said he thought that the change had been approved and arranged with the Telegraph.

The New Hampshire radio is full of the fiasco, with some commentators thinking it will hurt Bush with the large undecide vote. However, with the latest Crane comments, it seems that Reagan might also eventually look like the Machiavellian master plotter.

In a letter sent yesterday to the four candadates left out of the debates, Bush expressed his regrets about the "Unpleasantness" surrounding the incident. He asserted that the terms were set by the newspaper, and that he had been willing to change them. "Unlike Gov. Reagan," he wrote, "I have not ducked joint debates . . . Frankly, I feel he used you to set me up."

Hours later, Reagan responded to Bush's charges. "That's a lie," he snapped last night.

"We're driving down to the finish line as if everything depends on New Hampshire -- and to a degree it does," shouts Bush, exhorting those who are for him to get out to the polls.

The Republican race is a three-tiered scenario with Bush and Reagan neck-and-neck, Baker and Anderson scrambling for third, and Crane, Connally and Dole as also-rans. Unstumped on the Stump

On the stump George Bush lets loose with gee-whiz optimism. "I'm sick and tired of apologizing for weeknesses and shortcomings. We are entering an optimistic decade." He reiterates what all the other candidates, save John Anderson, do. You control inflation by "reducing government spending and by freezing our private free-market system." You handle the Russians by "being strong!"

Bush, the former CIA director, is an obvious beneficiary of Iran and Afghanistan. When he started running, aides adivsed him to play down those CIA ties. Now crowds roar approval when he shouts. "We have to strengthen the CIA if we're going to successfully fight closed society." Bush stiffs out his hard-line talk, revs his voice up; his hands and fingers are seldom still and at times as they fly through the air it looks as if he's signing for the deaf. He stirs up memories of Hubert Humphrey as he compliments someone in the audience for asking him a "darn good question."

The cynics in the press who are watching are not always moved by Bush, but people in the audience often praise his earnestness. On the stump he says "Gosh" but in private Bush is capable of slamming his hands as he watches on TV the one man he totally dislikes in politics, and saying, "John Connally, that p---k."

Off the stump, Bush is a pleasant, bright conversationalist who pokes fun at his elitist image, but is too consumed with today's outcome to think of much else. He is asked a lot about an interview that indicated he favored a winnable nuclear war. Bush repeats that Russia's military policy is based on the "ugly concept" that some will survive a nuclear war. The U.S. must counter by "negotating from strength," he says.

He is asked less often about the part of his record that troubles the more liberal elements in the Republican Party -- his 1964 Goldwater conservatism, opposition to the civil rights bill and support of limited nuclear warfare in Vietnam. "You gotta go back to the times. I was, infact, considered too liberal by the ultra-right then."

He shows just a spark of anger that his opponents have been running up and down the state claiming that Bush is winning only because he has out-organized them.Bush responds that he has a whole sheaf of issue papers that no one wants to read right now. "When you're out front, people try to knock you down. I think I'm going to win this nomination, but I know that what goes up can come down." A win to today's vote, Bush vows, "is not going to turn me into an instant big shot." Pulling the Plug

Andy Warhol once said that in today's world everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. For Jon Breen, executive editor of the Nashua Telegraph, it was more like 15 seconds.

There he was in the gym, doing battle with the Grand Old Man of the Grand Old Party, 69-year-old Ronald Reagan. As Reagan tried to explain why he had invited the other candidates to join the debate, Breen leaned over and said, "pull the plug on Gov. Reagan's mike." Reagan furiously grabbed the mike, saying, "Is this on? Is this on?" Hearing his voice spread through the gym. Reagan said, I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Breen" -- only Reagan mispronounced it Mr. Green, as in the color. The audience roared its approval.

The next day, Breen, a balding man with one day's growth of beard, leaned back in a chair at the paper and said, "I have no regrets. I feel a moderator's function is to maintain order -- even if it means pulling the microphone plug on Reagan." The executive editor of a paper with a circulation of 27,000 was enjoying his fleeting prominence ignoring the fact that Reagan was not distrupting the peace simply by trying to explain to a mystified audience of 2,500 why it had been kept waiting for a half an hour and why these four other candidates were standing there awkwardly, without chairs, behind the seats where he and Bush and Breen were sitting.

Breen maintained that Reagan was not entitleed to change the rules just because he was the angel of the production.

Throwing out a little heavy-handed hyperbole, Breen said: "If Reagan can't stand up to four Republicans [if he caved in to pressure], how can he stand up to the Russians?"

Breen may have been the best thing for Reagan. All week he had seemed slowed down, showing his 69 years. He appeared waxen-faced, with two bright red spots on his cheek. He had returned to the rhetoric of old, including dusting off his reference to the woman in Chicago who received welfare checks under 127 different names.

In one earlier debate he seemed almost to have endorsed bribery. Asked about the Trextron Corporation's payment of bribes to foreign countries while it was headed by G. William Miller, now President Carter's secretary of the treasury, Reagan suggested that bribes might be an unavoidable feature of foreign commerce. "Are we corrupting the morals of the other countries, or are we in the field of international trade faced with a custom that is world-wide except here in our country?" he asked. "And that in order to do business, you find that you have to, in a sense, employ an agent there to help you do the business."

And he seemed shaken by some hostile questions after reporters printed an ethnic joke he had told on the press bus.

But after his altercation with Breen, Reagan was fired up and bested Bush on many debate point. The Stand-Aparters

There should be a button on the typewriters for reporters to punch in the phrase "with the exception of John Anderson . . ." Anderson, and to a lesser extent Baker, stand apart ideologically from the rest, who are marked more by similarities than by differences. There are but slight variations in the conservative solutions they espouse -- fighting inflation by cutting the government and beefing up foreign policy by big defense spending. Anderson calls Reagan and Bush "Tweedledum and Tweedledee. There's no real philosophical difference between them."

This state does not galvanize that much behind issues. The last true issue to send them solidly to the polls was the 1972 anti-war vote, which gave McGovern his surprise start. But today, it is open season on doves. Hawk talk is everywhere, from Connally, Reagan, Bush, Crane, Dole, Connally sees more Reagan plots than most: Afhganistan is a weigh station on their to the Persian Gulf. Ghotbzadeh is probably a KGB agent; if not, he is at least a Marxist."

Connally, the jut-jawed hero of big oil, plays to small houses. He no longer commands the pompon girls of his opening campaign or the magazine covers. He is trailed by only one or two TV cameras as he enters a hall that Bush filled two days before. He is happy to say, in the state with a large anti-nuke constituency, that he is pronuke. "The worst environment I can think of is to be cold, hungry and unemployed. You have to get big government off the back of industry so they can mine more coal, burn more coal, put more nuclear and other plants on the line."

Crane is still Five Percent Phil in the polls. He is as jut-jawed as Connally, his white teeth agleam and face tan, his voice seldom changing its tone. It is as if he activates a button to spew out an unchanging cadence, a computer-full of awsome facts and figures. Audiences like the looks of the "young Ronald Reagan" but as one woman sighed, "He says too much; I can't absorb it."

A moment of genuine praise here for Bob Dole. His humor may not do much for him at today's polling booth but it often saves the campaign from becoming one big snore. A questioner asked Crane why he is making anti-gun control and anti-abortion such big issues. Dole quips that he would be glad to be asked about some issues: "All I hear is momentuam. Big Mo and Little Mo. It would be refreshing if someone asked me about an issue instead of a poll." Dole, last in the polls, cracked, "It also, in my case, would be very helpful."

One of his favorite jokes is about the Democrat in the House who said, "Let me tax your memories' -- and Ted Kennedy jumped up and said, "Why haven't we thought of that before?'" Pot Shots

The one issue of grand passion in this state is guns. The subject of gun control laws produced one of the emotional, ugly evenings when all the major candidates and the two laugh entries -- Richard Kay and Lyndon Larouche -- and President Carter's son, Jack, spoke before a racked crowd of 2,000 gun owners. The National Rifle Association says it has a membership of 1.2 million. In 1976 it reported that 204 of the 279 congressional candidates it supported were elected. They are united in their hatred for Ted Kennedy, whose current bill would control Saturday Night Specials. One man in the crowd proudly carried his sign. "Ted Kennedy for Lifeguard in 1980."

For the uninitiated, it is difficult to understand the fervor of the gun owner. The crowd cherred an all seriousness when Richard Kaye recommended that criminals be moved to "some island in Polynesia in little houses for an indeterminant sentence." And they booed, in all seriousness, shouting "Sit down!" and Bulls---!" and other pleasantries as Anderson went against the tide to espouse the notion that guns should be licensed. It sounded more like the crowd at a boxing ring than at a political forum. And they shouted "Get out of here!" as he kept trying to explain his position.

But all the others paid homage to the gun owners' litany that licensing memories of their own gun-toting days. Bleeps of Momentum

Slugging it out for third place are Anderson and Baker. Baker hoped, as the Republican leader on SALT II, that he could have scored major points, but that faded with the Afghanistan invasion and the demise of SALT II. He has been running his campaign in a laid-back manner, trying to persuade the voters that his middle-of-the-road record is what the Republicans need to beat Carter.

Anderson billed as the "thinking man's candidate," will tap the liberals and some of the moderates in the Republican Party as well as some independents. There are little bleeps of momentum registering around Anderson."Contrary to Doonesbury, I am no longer begging kids to take me to the bus stop," said Anderson, who actually had a two-van motorcade the other day.

He can fill college gyms to the rafters and is the favorite of many an editorial page, but he is still an unknown to many of the plain people of New Hampshire. Supporters carrying Anderson brochures still approach voters tentatively with, "Have you by any chance heard of John Anderson?"

Says one student ruefully, "Getting recognition is really tough around here."

Anderson rails away at the conservatives' talk of raising defense spending and still balancing the budget. "That's incompatible unless you chop so deeply you take it out of the hides of poor people."

He reserves a special harshness for Bush. "He is very fuzzy on energy. He has no anti-inflation program other than cutting federal spending, but he turns around and wants everything the Pentagon ever asked for."

No one should be nominated simply because he shakes more hands or has gotten more endorsements," says Anderson.

This year saw politicians eager to claim momentum and the press -- eager to either validate or disprove polls or opinions -- honing in on the relately small events of the Iowa and Maine caucuses. Press saturation is now complete in New Hampshire. Every camp is trying to float its own definition of a victory. A Bush aide says if Reagan gets less than 50 percent he's "flipping -- and if we come in second, we've won." Reagan's people say nothing doing, "a win is a win."

One way or another the quadrennial madness gets madder each season. These are the words of a man who is not a front runner, of course, but John Anderson has a point that many can sympathize with when he decries the emphasis on New Hampshire -- the first real primary. He says he will stay in the race as long as money -- the mother's milk of politics -- comes in. sBut he adds, almost wistfully as well as in anger, "I can remember the days when New Hampshire was just the beginning -- not the end."