A long, long time ago, in the land of the primaries, he was the front-runner bounding into New Hampshire out of wins in Iowa and Puerto Rico with his fickle companion, Big Mo (as in momentum), by his side.

But it has all come down to this.

Ronnie Reagan, the anointed, sweeping onto center stage for his coming coronation, a vision in ice-cream-white suit; trailed by adoring fans and a churning mob of image makers, up to his presidential suite high above the masses.

And there was George Bush this morning in a cramped, steaming hotel room, facing his 267 delegates, a handful at a time, state by state.

It was Bush's turn to tell them to win one for the Gipper.

He leaned back against the table, coat off, reading glasses and papers stuffed into the pocket of his blue shirt, striped necktie loosened. Bush was incorrigibly, unrelentingly enthusiastic, the good guy performing a class act.

"I plan to enthusiastically support Governor Reagan . . . I encourage you to do exactly the same . . . It's essential to get rid of Jimmy Carter . . ." Positions Reagan had recently articulated were "excellent! Strong! Exciting!"

Adjectives quite predictable from a candidate who, according to one Reagan aide, is 90 percent there on his way to the Veepstakes.

February in New Hampshire: George Bush had wanted fiercely to go one-on-one with Reagan in a great national debate. He couldn't bend with the tide when he saw that he was being sandbagged into a plan to include the other Republican candidates. The four stalked off, vowing revenge, warbling to the press in the band room of a small-town gym. "Rawest political act I've seen in 15 years of politics," spewed Sen. Howard Baker. p"Bush can't unify the party by treating us like dirt," fumed Sen. Bob Dole. "Ditto Rep. John Anderson and Rep. Phil Crane.

It was all a setup, wailed Bush. "Unlike Gov. Reagan," he later wrote the quartet, "I have not ducked joint debates . . . Frankly I feel he used you to set me up."

Snapped Reagan, "That's a lie."

Detroit in July: Peace, harmony, unity. Was Bush totally content with the GOP platform, a platform that reflects many right-wing positions, a platform that dumps the ERA he favors, and calls for constitutional amendment on abortion, which he doesn't?

Slight irritation in the voice: "The party is more unified than it has been in a long, time. Anyone who doesn't understand that, doesn't understand the Republican Party."

George Bush is, of course, more than just an also-ran. His name is everywhere as the most prominent in the pack of vice-presidential contenders. It floats out of the radio in a taxi driving through Detroit in hot sunshine. The hair-sprayed TV correspondents speak it into the mikes, standing in the jammed aisles during the opening session of the convention.

Most of the delegates -- even the Southerners and the hard-core Reaganites -- say stoically that they could live with Bush. And Bush won the plurality of delegates in one vice-presidential NBC poll. The stakes are just too high to insist on unswerving fealty on every position.

There is just one problem. Reagan and Bush don't exactly adore one another. For months aides in both camps have leaked tales of animosity; Eastern elitism vs. Southern California-ism. And so the other names still get the rumored treatment -- in the bars, on the convention floor, over the networks -- Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, New York Rep. Jack Kemp, Michigan Rep. Guy Vander Jagt.

The media push Bush to talk about the vice presidency at every moment. He sighs. "I know it's the only game in town -- but I don't want to play." His close friends Dean Burch says his strategy on Veepstakes "is not strategy." Of course, it would be very nice if Bush were greeted enthusiastically when he addresses the convention tomorrow night, Burch tells the delegates. And Bush interjects to their laughter, "We're not calling for a spontaneous demonstration, you understand . . ."

But the main stress is not to push too hard. Bush launches into the story he tells every delegation. "I ran into this man by the popcorn stand outside. So enthusiastic. Wonderful man. He pulled open his briefcase." Bush peers down into an imaginary briefcase. "For a moment, I thought he was in the vulgar-picture business." Giggles from the delegates.

"And there was that briefcase just bulging with bright red Reagan and Bush buttons." Bush laughed. "Let him do his thing -- but he's not getting any instructions from me."

March in Illinois: The land of broken dreams, a political landscape smeared with losers. John Connally and Dole and Crane and Baker, felled by the pitfalls and potholes of the primary trail, were long gone. And George Bush was a forgotton man hardly mentioned by the TV newscasters as he got little more than 10 percent of the Illinois primary vote.

Bush's performance those days was a low-key respite from his gee-whiz, arm-flailing, front-runner days when Bush shouted, "I'm up for the '80s." And said he was an optimist who thought the glass was "half-full -- not half-empty."

His face was etched with fatigue and worry lines as he reeled through a gauntlet of reporters like a punch-drunk fighter, a set half-smile on his face. The answer was terse when he spoke of Reagan. "He's strong. Let's face it." He speaks once again of Nashua, an episode that became a crucial mistake. The words come painfully. "Yeah, I could have done it differently." The voice is so low you can barely catch the answer. "I wish I had."

The reporters, careening frantically in search of news on the streets of Detroit, keep trying to pluck emotions out of Bush, for some snippet of drama. Is there a great deal of disappointment in releasing his delegates? asked a male TV reporter. The quick Bush reply: "I got over the disappointment a couple of months ago."

And, at least on the record, so have his small band of delegates. One said there was "no animosity." If Bush wasn't picked by Reagan. "we'd be hurt, but not devastated." Then she dropped her guard, shook her head about the women's plank in the platform. "I just can't stand it. The party has to have Bush."

But unity was the password. It took a while for "the wounds to heal," Bush tells his delegates. "But my perspective is in good shape. My perspective makes me ask you to strongly do what I ask you to do."

Now Bush is standing on the terrace outside the hotel room, in blinding sunlight, shaking each delegate's hand. One asks if he can have his picture taken with Bush. "Absolutely!" Cameras close in, quick smile.

And suddenly, the smile is genuine. Bush may have yet one more defeat Thursday, one more deflating loss. But right now there is some heady contentment. "Ah, you're great," tells his delegates. "I tell you, I get so wrapped up in all this." The old optimist was at it again. "I tell you," making a fist and smacking his hands, "I'm upbeat!"