Just as the network moves into high gear on reporting key elections in the 1988 presidential races, Richard Cohen, the senior producer for political coverage at CBS News, is in hot water ...

Monday in Des Moines, Cohen was barred from the CBS News set after a confrontation with Joan Richman, vice president of news coverage, and David Buksbaum, vice president and director of CBS News special events, even as the network prepared to report on the key Iowa caucus results that evening ...

They had been angered by Cohen's remarks about the George Bush-Dan Rather on-air confrontation Jan. 29 on "The CBS Evening News," made in a recent lunchtime interview with columnist Julie Gammack and reported Monday in The Des Moines Register ...

Cohen wrote the original letter to the vice president inviting him to appear on "CBS Evening News." In the heated exchange that followed Rather's persistent questioning on Bush's role in the Iran-contra affair, Bush charged Cohen had "misrepresented" the ground rules of the interview ...

In the Monday interview, Cohen said, "Look, I think Dan made mistakes. I think his posture was probably too aggressive, but that's not the issue. I'd be the first to say we made a tactical error in agreeing to go live, because you can't control a live situation. I don't think I've seen such tension as when he sat down to do this ...

"We took a very heavy hit," Cohen told Gammack. "I think it was very damaging to us. To Dan. To our credibility. I feel responsible for that and it's enormously frustrating. He would be the first to tell you he made mistakes, but that's not the issue. That shouldn't be the issue. We did not set out to 'get' George Bush. We set out to nail Bush on an issue" ...

Sources close to CBS News yesterday suggested management and Rather have become "hypersensitive" over the Bush-Rather issue and any actions that might somehow keep it alive in the media ...

Cohen, who was back on the job at CBS election headquarters in Manchester, N.H., yesterday, refused to comment on the story, although he was reportedly bitter over the confrontation with management. Both Richman and Buksbaum were unavailable for comment as the News Division moved from Iowa to the scene of next Tuesday's primary ...

This is not the first time Cohen has ruffled management feathers. Last spring, he was a major contributor to a New York Times op-ed piece, signed by Rather, scolding CBS Inc. president Laurence Tisch for massive payroll cuts that, the co-authors suggested, seriously compromised CBS News' image and capabilities ...

On Aug. 31, The Times published another op-ed piece by Cohen blasting South Africa's restrictions against the media and urging "Western news organizations, specifically American network news operations, to say 'enough' to the {South African} government in Pretoria and to pick up our marbles and go home" ...

That article appeared as CBS News faced a possible ban from South Africa (it still does). The unauthorized call from then senior producer of foreign news Cohen for a unilateral withdrawal from Pretoria did not sit well with network brass ...

Until recently, Cohen was considered under the patronage of Rather, but yesterday there were hints the anchor has distanced himself from his longtime friend after this latest uproar. However, there was no evidence of Rather's direct involvement in Monday's action against Cohen ...

Rather did not return our call yesterday. And CBS News president Howard Stringer, en route to Phoenix from Des Moines, via Denver, offered no direct comment on Cohen's reprimand from Buksbaum and Richman. "By the time I got to Des Moines {Monday}," said Stringer, "they had dealt with the problem. I really don't know much about it" ...

Another Confrontation NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw tried to pin down Republican Pat Robertson during an interview taped for the network's Iowa Caucus special Monday night on the touchy issue of whether Robertson seeks "God's advice" in making political decisions ...

But according to Brokaw, a technical glitch interfered with their conversation, and instead, viewers got the impression only that Robertson let Brokaw have it over the anchor's reference to him as a television evangelist ...

The remote interview between Brokaw on the NBC set and Robertson at his headquarters was being taped 40 minutes before the 10:30 p.m. broadcast. After a polite exchange, Brokaw asked, "When you were a television evangelist you often said that you had God's advice on specific decisions that you had to make. Do you get His advice as well on specific political decisions?" ...

Robertson did not respond directly to the question, answering instead that "I'd like to point out to you, if you don't mind, I think it's the last time that I want to be called a television evangelist. I've been a TV broadcaster ... and because I am a religious broadcaster I've talked to people on major issues. That's why they have given me this tremendous victory in Iowa and I really believe that henceforth the religious bigotry that that question of yours implies is going to be a dead issue. I don't like it and I think out of Iowa they're saying I'm a serious candidate and I'm going to run as a serious candidate" ...

Brokaw responded, "With all due respect, Mr. Robertson, there was no religious bigotry expressed at all here ... I'll accept your language, religious broadcaster. I'll accept that" ...

Brokaw, however, said yesterday that at that point he pressed Robertson on his inquiry about "God's help" but simultaneously, "there was an audio interrupt and I never heard his answer. It never played out. Robertson's people said somebody had kicked a cable at their headquarters. But I pursued my question, I wasn't conceding anything to him at all -- I wanted to know about invoking God's name -- but I never heard an answer and what you heard on the special was just up to the point of the interrupt" ...

Brokaw said yesterday that an NBC technician later reported that Robertson told people around him at one point during the audio breakdown that "if I'm asked that question one more time I won't do another interview with NBC" ...

The NBC special, by the way, finished third behind the last half hour of CBS' "Wiseguy" and ABC News' Iowa special at 10:30 Monday night. During the half hour, CBS did a 14.1 national Nielsen rating and a 25 percent audience share. ABC was next at 12.9/22, while the NBC News special did an 8.4/15 ...

The conclusion of "Elvis & Me" on ABC earlier Monday night did a very nice 24.9 national Nielsen rating and a 36 percent audience share ...

With the Winter Olympics looming for the network, that bodes well for a good ABC showing in the February sweeps. The two-night average for Elvis would rank it as the 12th-highest-rated two-part movie in TV history, according to ABC ...

In Washington, Elvis did a 21.2/31 on Channel 7 Monday night ...

1 32.3 The Cosby Show 47 NBC 2 27.8 A Different World 41 NBC 3 24.9 Cheers 37 NBC 4 24.6 The Golden Girls 39 NBC 5 23.9 Elvis & Me I 35 ABC 6 22.5 Growing Pains 33 ABC 7 22.3 Who's the Boss? 32 ABC 8 21.5 Murder, She Wrote 31 CBS 9 21.4 Moonlighting 32 ABC 10 21.3 Super Bloopers 37 NBC 21.3 60 Minutes 33 CBS 12 20.7 Amen 34 NBC 13 19.3 Letterman Anniversary 31 NBC 14 19.0 Windmills of the Gods I 28 CBS 15 18.6 Dallas 30 CBS 16 18.4 Matlock 27 NBC 17 18.0 ALF 26 NBC 18 17.8 Head of the Class 28 ABC 19 17.3 227 28 NBC 20 17.1 Perfect Strangers 27 ABC NBC won the week but ABC, boosted by Part I of "Elvis & Me," the return of Maddie to "Moonlighting" and a poor showing by two of CBS' three news magazine shows, finished a fairly strong second ...

NBC averaged a 16.7 rating and a 26 share, compared with a 14.9/23 for ABC and a 13.7/21 for CBS, which also didn't get any help from a Lyndon LaRouche political half hour leading off Thursday's schedule, although "Knots Landing" recovered at 10 that night to finish in a tie for 22d ...

NBC's "Rambo: First Blood Part II" on Sunday picked up audiences in the Hinterlands to finish in a tie for 28th, not bad against Elvis and "Windmills" (those three shows head to head on Sunday held 86 percent of the nation's set-in-use in thrall, compared with an average 71 share for the three networks so far this year) ...

High Culture took a real pasting from NBC last week. Not only did "Super Bloopers and New Practical Jokes" reach 10th last week, its wrestling special Friday (31st) beat out "Beauty and the Beast." And the episode of "Facts of Life" in which Natalie was deflowered by Snake the Truck Driver finished 21st (up from its average 32d ranking for the season) ...

The Smothers Brothers reunion on CBS was 38th and ABC's "Rock & Roll Mom" tied for 44th. ABC's "Dolly," in its new Saturday time slot, continued to sink out of sight, finishing 58th ...

An entertaining "48 Hours" at Denver's Stapleton International Airport on CBS did no better than 65th ...

The Final And All Too Often Fatal Five last week included CBS' defunct "The Law & Harry McGraw" in 68th, followed, in order, by ABC's "Sledge Hammer!"; CBS' Bugs Bunny Valentines Day special; CBS' "West 57th"; and the Lyndon LaRouche paid political show on CBS, dead last in 72d for the week ending Feb. 7 ...