Was William Loeb, the inflexibly conservative New Hampshire publisher, turning over in his grave because George Bush, whom he once called an "incompetent liberal masquerading as a conservative," was paying him homage?

George Bush gave the question fleeting consideration and an equally fleeting smile last night.

"I'd like to think he'd be more pleasant about it than that," Bush said, sounding a little uncertain.

And Barbara Bush, holding forth nearby, what did she think of her husband keynoting a tribute to Loeb? After all, Loeb hadn't been a bit nice to George Bush in the New Hampshire primary of 1980.

"Oh, really!" said Barbara Bush with a hint of sarcasm.

Well, a reporter persisted, didn't that bother her?

"If it did, I wouldn't be here," she snapped, cutting short further questions by walking off.

Loeb's wheelchair-using widow, Nackey, who succeeded him as publisher of the Manchester Union Leader, came down for the testimonial. She said her husband never had any pangs of conscience about his paper's sometimes devastating effect on people's careers and lives.

When she learned that Bush would deliver the dinner speech, she wrote him a letter saying, "As you know, Bill and I haven't always seen eye to eye with you politically, but he would have admired your loyalty to the president as do I, and he would have been most honored by your presence."

As for those who might try to make an issue of Bush's appearance, she wrote, "Well, so what, Bill would have chuckled."

Later, in his speech, Bush wooed the ballroom filled with New Right conservatives by poking fun at himself and recalling humorously some of the highlights of Loeb's attacks on him.

The idea of George Bush and William Loeb, who died in 1981, kissing and making up posthumously found some in the Sheraton Washington's Madison Room volunteering explanations.

"I'm sure that Bill Loeb, wherever he is -- you know, up there in heaven -- must certainly think that it's ironic," said political consultant Richard A. Viguerie. "Everybody thinks it's smart politics on Bush's part, but I'm sure Bush has had to screw up his courage to walk into this room. It's not the easiest thing he's going to do in the month of December."

Max Hugel, the former Loeb disciple who organized the dinner under the aegis of something called Project '88, said he invited President Reagan to address the dinner but he couldn't make it. "So we invited the vice president and he graciously accepted. I think it was the right thing to do."

Anna Chennault dismissed the incongruities of the evening as "politics, politics -- you say one thing about a person one day and the next day you say something else. What you say isn't exactly what you mean."

Phyllis Schlafly said she wasn't the least bit shocked that Bush was keynoting the dinner. "I think Loeb would expect every Republican candidate to make an effort to come and present himself." She stopped short of calling Bush a strong conservative candidate. "Well, he's a strong candidate."

Viguerie's view was that "Bush is a smart politician. He knows there is no advantage staying away from events like this and having people as opponents you don't need. He may neutralize a few people."

Hugel saw to it that Bush wasn't the only choice among the GOP grab bag of presidential hopefuls for the assemblage of uncommitted Republican activists to look over. Assigned to the dinner committee were investment broker Lewis E. Lehrman and television evangelist Pat Robertson, who said, "I'm seriously considering running for president , it's not just playing."

Bush and Robertson smiled broadly and chatted amicably while cameras flashed. Later, Robertson said Bush had asked him, " 'Well, are you or not?' I said we'll get together and talk."

Two who did not make the reception were Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), tied up on the Hill where the House voted not to consider a revision of the tax code, and Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.). His wife, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole, came but the senator, a spokeswoman said, had a longstanding commitment to attend a fundraiser in New York for Sen. Alfonse D'Amato.