Battles begin in quiet ways, one logistical step at a time.

At 3:30 Monday afternoon Mary Martin, the deputy bureau chief of CBS News in Washington, left her office at 2020 M St. NW and took a cab to the U.S. Capitol. Her cameraman and soundman, George Christian and Dan Tutman, took a separate cab, and when the three arrived on the Hill they went to Room 214 on the Senate side -- the office of the vice president of the United States.

There, the CBS team began setting up for a scheduled live interview of George Bush by anchor Dan Rather on the "CBS Evening News." The interview was to become the Great Bush-Rather Battle of 1988, and before it was over at slightly before 7 p.m. those involved behind the scenes -- particularly at the network -- had gone through a nightmare of phone-screaming, bone-snapping tension.

It was "Broadcast News" in real life, and then some.

Rather spent the day preparing for the interview with the help of his associates at the CBS Broadcast Center at 524 W. 57th St. in Manhattan. "We spent most of the day sitting briefing him, reading through material, going back and forth," said "Evening News" Executive Producer Tom Bettag. Staffers engaged in "role playing ... trying different things," including an exploration of what Rather would do if Bush were "very aggressive."

Bettag said that among those Rather consulted on Monday, though briefly, was Tom Donilon, a Washington lawyer and widely known Democratic Party activist who worked in the now defunct presidential campaign of Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.) and is now a paid consultant for CBS -- one of many the network hires to help with campaign coverage.

"We certainly anticipated his coming out of the blocks aggressively," said Bettag. "What we did not guess for a minute was his charge that we misled him."

That charge -- which Bush leveled at Rather in his first response during the nine-minute interview -- added an explosive air to their confrontation. The vice president contended he had expected a wide-ranging interview of the "campaign profile" type, not one focused exclusively on the Iran-contra scandal.

However, reports -- whether true or not -- had reached the Bush campaign that Rather and others at CBS were anticipating an interview that would harm the vice president. "Some of it was pretty hair-raising," said Peter Teeley, communications director for the Bush campaign. "It was put to me that Rather was really going to confront Bush, and someone expected one of these two guys to crumble." And Bettag said Bush's people knew all along what the interview focus would be. "We were completely open," he said.

Was Bush told of this focus by his own staff? "About the only person that didn't think it was an Iran-contra piece was George Bush," said Bush's national campaign manager, Lee Atwater, yesterday. "He was sure it would be a profile like the other profiles" CBS has done on presidential candidates. Atwater quoted Bush as saying that Rather was a "fair guy" who wouldn't sandbag him.

Did Bush cleverly ambush a potential ambusher? White House sources said yesterday that Roger Ailes, Bush's media consultant, had advised the vice president on how to deal with Iran-contra questions, and had furnished him with the rejoinder about Rather's absence from the air for several minutes during a newscast last year.

Ailes said yesterday he wouldn't comment on his role. But he steadfastly held that CBS had "misrepresented ... They said 'campaign profile,' indicated a broad range of subjects."

Bush spent most of Monday in New Hampshire, returning to Andrews Air Force Base at 4:25 in the afternoon. He went to his residence, then to his office at the Capitol where he spent "personal staff time" before the 6:30 interview.

"He had pretty much in his own mind how he was going to handle this," said Teeley, who spoke with Bush before the broadcast by phone from Bush campaign headquarters at 733 15th St. NW. Teeley and Atwater planned to watch the show on television there.

Ailes, who was with Bush at the Capitol, said that while the CBS crew was readying the vice president's office, Bush was across the hall in a small staff room with his wife, Barbara, and several aides, including spokesman Stephen Hart and chief of staff Craig L. Fuller. They were planning to attend President Reagan's State of the Union Address later that night.

"He was on the phone," said Ailes of Bush during the hour before the broadcast. "He was laughing, having a good time ... He was sitting there drinking a Coke or Pepsi."

About 10 minutes before air time, Bush crossed the hall to his office.

"He went in, they miked him," said Ailes. "The audio man was sitting in his chair. The vice president said, 'Hey, you look good, I'd vote for you.' He had a friendly exchange with the crew."

Meanwhile, in New York, Rather was starting the "Evening News" broadcast. The Bush interview was to be in a later segment of the show, and in the newsroom technicians and producers were poised to carry off a phenomenal feat -- a live interview of unknown length that would have to blend seamlessly into the remainder of the broadcast, including commercials, and end at a precise instant.

Bettag described it this way:

"Basically Dan is at the anchor desk with the editor, Lee Townsend, and a senior producer, Al Ortiz. I'm in the control room with Richard Cohen, senior political producer, and Marty Koughan, producer of the taped piece {on Bush's Iran-contra role} that preceded the interview. I give time cues to Dan through a telex in his ear, so he knows how much time is left, which is an evolving question. We planned for it to be three, five, or seven minutes. Eight and a half was considered our absolute outside."

At one point, Bettag had a phone on each ear -- one to Ortiz, who was close enough to Rather to pass him a note, and another to Bill Crawford, a senior producer who was sitting in the "fishbowl" just off the newsroom. The fishbowl is where all the timing and final decisions are made. The control room, also located just off the large newsroom, is where the technical controls are located.

As the interview got underway, Bettag was "going back and forth, juggling all these phones."

Before that, there was an especially tense moment. On one ear, Bettag had a phone connected to Martin and the crew in the vice president's office in Washington. As Rather introduced the five-minute taped report that was to precede the interview, he said he would be asking the vice president "the questions that keep coming up in his campaign ... on arms to Iran and money to the contras."

Suddenly Bettag was alarmed to hear the vice president complaining about this over the open line from Washington, apparently to aides and others in the room.

"Bush is sitting there saying, 'Iran-contra affair? ... I didn't know this was about the Iran-contra affair. Nobody told me ... They aren't going to talk to me about Iran-contra, are they? If he talks to me about the Iran-contra affair, they're going to see a seven-minute walkout here.' "

At that point, Bettag could hear a CBS technician telling Bush, "Your mike is open, sir."

"That's fine," said Bush. "I want him to hear what I'm saying."

Bettag immediately told Rather, "Dan, Bush is saying he didn't know the subject. I don't know what to do. Just be aware of it."

The show broke for advertising -- Andersen Windows, flowers by FTD, Sinutab II, and Nut & Honey Crunch.

Then Rather ran the taped segment and began the live interview.

Fireworks.

As it went longer and longer, there was barely controlled hysteria among the technicians and producers.

Bettag: "We came out of the commercial and the rest of the time is talking Dan down and talking to Bill Crawford," who was killing stories to make room for the expanded interview.

Finally Bettag was screaming into Rather's ear, "Cut! Cut! Cut! You gotta cut."

Rather did, and some thought he cut the vice president off somewhat rudely. Bush looked a little miffed.

Now off the air, he made some choice remarks.

"The bastard didn't lay a glove on me," Bush said, among other things. He also made a derogatory reference to Rather, employing a vulgar word.

So much for the wimp factor.

Shortly thereafter, Bush left with his wife for dinner in a dining room in the Capitol before attending the State of the Union Address.

In New York, meanwhile, Rather left his anchor position and walked directly to the fishbowl for 15 minutes of hand-wringing discussion with Bettag and the others.

"Nobody was upset," said Bettag, "but very concerned. 'What about misleading?' ... It was one of those soul-searching moments. 'Where does that come from?' And slowly saying ... slowly kind of clearing your mind." Rather and the others, Bettag said, decided they had been fully up-front with the Bush people. The network had run promos indicating the interview would involve Iran-contra.

In the end, said Bettag, "We were all looking at each other and saying, 'Hey, there's no doubt. We're perfectly comfortable with where we are.' "

Staff writer Ken Ringle contributed to this report.