"The United States of America," in huge blue letters, runs the length of sleek white Air Force Two. Inside, Vice President George Bush sips tea. With his dark striped suit and shirt and tie, Bush is also wearing a plaid lumberjack shirt. His bracing campaign morning had begun with chitchat with Minnesota farmers sitting on bales of hay and that relic of campaign photo opportunities -- milking a cow. It's all in the bag, all over except the voting, is the Bush message -- delivered, characteristically, with unrelenting enthusiasm across the nation. 'Her'

All is well in Bush's world except for one nettlesome irritant. Like a vapor trail, it lingers in the landscape of Bush's mind. He has not found happiness in his historic role of being the first male to compete with a woman for the vice presidency. She gets the media pack; his press plane, which trails behind Air Force Two, is half full. She gets the roaring thousands, he gets carefully packaged luncheons and rallies.

The George Bush-Geraldine Ferraro debate was nearly two weeks before, and in campaign reality, where news has the shelf life of fresh shrimp, that was eons ago. But Bush does not forget. He brings up the subject, telling audiences, "I think she knows in her heart of hearts I whipped her." A flicker of anger crosses his face when he is asked if Ferraro scored any points when she told Bush not to patronize her. Waiting in a Green Bay hotel room to speak at a lunch, Bush said this week, "Well, what about when she said she was going to correct me? You didn't find one reporter writing about that." (In one rebuttal, Ferraro said of Bush's characterization of the Carter-Mondale administration, "I'm going to start correcting the vice president's statistics.")

He closed that luncheon speech with a loosely connected discourse about debating a woman and good sportsmanship. "Frankly, I think I did her in and the polls show it big. When the American people spoke about it and didn't have to get it editorialized for them, that's what they said. You know there are a lot of parents around here, a lot of competitors in sports around here. But I was apprehensive about that debate. You can go back and read the clips."

Before the debate, said Bush, the pundits were writing "that it was a no-win situation. If you come on too strong you're one thing. If you don't come on strong, you're something else -- weak and can't handle it. So I was a little nervous. Did my homework. Got all kinds of advice. Incidentally, the final advice was to 'be yourself.' I felt, 'I'm paying for this kind of advice?' So I walked out on stage and shook hands with my opponent. The nice part I'm getting to. After the debate she couldn't have been nicer. I thought I would say, 'Wonderful close,' something to break the tension."

Then Bush describes the collection of family brought up on stage by both sides and how they all shook hands. "It taught me something I've known but it brought it home. You can get into a combative, high-tension situation and still do what the Vikings may have to do more than they like meaning to refer to the losing Green Bay Packers . Hold out your hand, shake hands and go about your business, and that's what politics ought to be and I give her credit for that. I think she reached out a little bit, too."

Now Bush is on the plane. His blue eyes spark for just a moment as he starts to respond to a question of whether Ferraro grasped the Central American situation. Then he stops. "Look, I've gotten through this campaign without really going after her. Let the American people decide. Let them make a judgment. I'd lay my credentials and I'd lay my judgment as of the facts right now up against her." He stops again. "But I'm not going to do what I have been unwilling to do -- tempted though I am at times."

After Nov. 6, Bush says he will be more than ready for a vacation. "This thing has been long and it's been . . ." He bites his lip. "You know." Was there ever a time when it went beyond the bounds of other races? Yes, he answers quickly. "But I can't help you on elaborating on it because I don't want to appear to be one who feels there has been different standards used. Someday I'll talk to you about it."

Does he mean the difficulties of running against the first female? He repeats, "Someday I'll talk to you about it."

The jet sails on and Bush is silent for a second. Suddenly, agitated about the subject, he says, "Can I make an off-the-record comment if you promise? But don't take it if you don't want it and if you won't totally protect it and not allude to it because I've never told anybody. So if I read it anywhere else . . ." The reporter declines if it can't be printed. Bush shrugs. "It would be something that would demonstrate the difference this time. But I won't do it." Would he say anything on the record? "Nope. I've stayed off her case."

He is angrier as he talks of the response to his wife's "four-million-dollar -- rhymes with rich" outburst about Ferraro. "Barb explained it to her. Thought she was talking off the record. I guess we should learn. Just as I did -- and the picture showed me whispering in the ear of a person!" when his "tried to kick a little ass" was overheard . "And for people to suggest that is a conspiracy and then have it picked up by people who ought to know better . . ." He waves the subject off. "But anyway, it hasn't hurt any at all."

At another point, Bush brings it up: "Everybody in the Ferraro camp knows we won the debate." Some polls say that his favorability rating declined slightly with both men and women after the debate. Bush says he has seen the cartoons that made fun of his arm-waving performance, his cheerleading support of Reagan.

Bush says all this "doesn't matter. The response from the American people was that I won that debate. They can analyze it, cartoonists can do all they want, politicians can criticize -- but we clearly won.

"And in terms of defending this president and in terms of staying together with this president, I feel very comfortable with that. Not only comfortable but I love being out there advocating our policies and speaking of the commitment of this president. Commitment to peace. Commitment to economic recovery.

"If I'm not willing to do that, who is?" Gaffes

At every stop the vice president pays gee-whiz homage to Reagan's capabilities. Of the 90-minute debate, Bush says, Reagan was "in command!" He "knocked it right out of the ballpark." "I see the president every single day in Washington and I see him in charge. I see him understanding the facts." "Those little insidious references to the age issue -- he blew that away, too, right out of the park." "He knows the fact. Came across strong . . ."

It is, as Bush says, the "cluttered" last days of the campaign. At times fatigue is written all over his face and creeps into his utterances; he came up with so many slips in one day that the press informally labeled his performance "Win One for the Gaffer." On Nicaragua, Bush said, "The 'contras' are not just totalitarian -- they are Marxist-Leninists! They don't believe in freedom of the press, freedom of religion!" He raced right along, not realizing that he had meant to say Sandinistas -- not the CIA-backed rebels. Dismissing Mondale, Bush shouted, "The attempt to tear down our president's leadership with the knowledge of the issues has not failed!" Prosperity

Despite such weary campaign moments, Bush is the picture of good news. He extolled Reagan-Bush economic prosperity -- to cheering college students at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, to businessmen in Green Bay.

So many young people say they are voting Republican for personal prosperity that some cynics say Reagan has cornered the greed market. On campuses, while Ferraro speaks of student loans to help the less well off and of a legacy of deficits, Bush promises an elixir: "We have got to keep this recovery going so when everybody here finishes school they can have jobs with dignity in the private sector!" His words are drowned out as students leap to their feet and chant "Four More Years!"

Bush mocks what was Mondale's daring and perhaps crucially miscalculated promise to raise taxes as a way to cut the massive deficit -- an issue too abstract for many voters. Bush repeats that Mondale would raise taxes "something like $1,800 for an average family," a figure Mondale says is distorted. Bush paints Mondale as giving away the store to the Soviets in advance of bargaining. He singles out Mondale for opposition to a laundry list of weapons -- the MX and B1 among them -- that many Democrats and Republicans consider obsolete or destabilizing. It matters not to the crowd of young people who thrill to words of America standing tall. Vietnam is ancient history. 'Contras'

Everywhere, the question of the week was Central America and the CIA primer -- dubbed the murder manual -- written for the "contras" that recommends "selective violence" to "neutralize" Sandinista officials. It includes kidnaping, mob violence and selective public execution. It is now being investigated. Bush responds at press conferences that he "hasn't read the manual and won't comment on it." Pressed as to the definition of "neutralize," the former CIA director said, "It could mean various things. I don't think there is a special intelligence or counter-intelligence or covert action definition of it."

His testy tone during the press conference was gone as he relaxed on the plane. Bush is asked about the "contras." Edgar Chamorro, a leader of the CIA-backed rebels, has said, "We do believe in the assassination of tyrants. Frankly, I do admit we have killed people in cold blood." Where is the American responsibility if the "contras" subscribe to assassinations and the United States finances their activities?

"I don't think there is any moral justification for killing and yet it takes place in this kind of thing," Bush says. "It takes place when the woman they wanted to send up as ambassador from Nicaragua is implicated in the mutilation and killing of an officer who had been a part of Somoza's regime. Regrettably, these things take place. We've seen it with 'contra' action, we've seen it with the Sandinista action."

Is he saying it's inevitable, and all right, for the United States to back them? "When you're in a wartime environment of that nature there's regrettably going to be killing and, I'm afraid, the loss of innocent life."

Does he think Operation Phoenix -- a program to destroy the Viet Cong infrastructure that included assassination -- was justifiable? Says Bush, "I don't remember enough of that. From the pure moral sense, you have to conclude it is not moral, but we're living in a world in which all sides are engaged in it."

He puts a positive face on Central America. "Frankly, there is a major change that a lot of people have not analyzed yet. There is much more understanding in the world about the Sandinistas' intention and I think Salvador, under Duarte, is on the right track." The Future

Four years ago, George Bush was in the midst of a snarly campaign against Reagan and gave political buffs a phrase to remember: "voodoo economics." By the time the Republicans reached Detroit, Bush was telling his delegates to win one for the Gipper. Incorrigibly enthusiastic, Bush said Reagan's positions were "Excellent! Strong! Exciting!" He was content with a platform that dumped the ERA he favored and called for a constitutional amendment on abortion, which he didn't. He sweated out the call from Ronald Reagan: "I'm just sitting around waiting," he said at that time. That must be terrible, a friend murmured. Bush rolled his eyes: "Oh, it is!"

Some of the far-right delegates booed the choice, and Bush still has his problems with some on the right. But he has become such a faithful follower that he has found friends among them, including the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Making a pilgrimage to Lynchburg, Va., in l983, Bush compared Falwell to Revolutionary War patriot Samuel Adams.

He is asked about the genesis of his friendship with Falwell, who has been criticized for his 1950s pro-segregation sermons -- and his current denunciations of homosexuals and those who don't follow the Moral Majority doctrine. Bush replies, "Ask me about an issue, not an individual, and I'll be glad to tell you. Do I favor segregation? No. Is that the question?" He is asked again. "Well, I've never heard him speak on segregation. So I just don't know that. We're in favor of the civil rights laws that guard against the period that we went through when we had segregation." He says of Falwell, "I have great respect for the way he gets out and fights for his beliefs.

"You know, I never heard anything about this involvement of religion and politics when all the clerical groups on the left were doing this, whether it was the Vietnam war or registering black groups."

Aides to Bush talk of his possible run at the presidency in 1988, but Bush always replies that he hasn't thought about it. Still, he concedes, "I know after l984, I'm going to have to start thinking about the election process." Others may be more in tune with the far right, but Bush -- who is often seen as more moderate than he really is -- gives every indication of being able to go with the flow.

Scoffed at by some for being the ultimate cheerleader, Bush says, "Look, there is the important point of the vice presidency. They're out there trying to get me to make news." Bush then poses an inconceivable scenario:

"The best way to make news is for me to say, 'Well, don't tell anybody, but the president is wrong on this and my conscience must tell you he is wrong on this' -- and get my name all over the papers. Now, if you had fundamental differences of moral conscience, that's something else, but I don't with this president. I have differences with him. But he knows something else -- that I'm not going to go out and whisper off the record to some columnist, even if it would make me look good in the eyes of the current thinking of the country or the press or whatever it is."

Bush is getting more heated. "I'm simply not going to do it -- I don't care how many cartoons and columns they write because there's a certain character involved in it."

Bush sips his tea and gets ready to confer with an aide before he hops off Air Force Two and into the arena of political pep talks.

"People may not give me credit for it -- but I know inside. I'm doing the right thing."