SO QUICK NOW, which characterization of George Bush is the most deathless?

That he emits the "tinny arf of a lapdog" (George Will) or that he "has the look about him of someone who might sit up and yip for a Dog Yummie" (Mike Royko).

That he "put his manhood in a blind trust" (Doonesbury) or that "he reminds every woman of her first husband" (Art Buchwald).

That he is the "Cliff Barnes of American politics" (The Washington Post) or the "J.R. Ewing" (Detroit News).

That if he "removed his clothes, instead of wearing underwear he'd be wearing perfectly creased tennis whites" (Royko again) or that . . . .


Cut. Time out.

Or for heaven sakes, at least slow down!

We've got two years to go before the next presidential election. We keep shredding Bush up this way, and there won't be much left for the voters (or worse yet, for the working stiffs covering the campaign) to have at in 1988.

I know. I know. Frontrunners are supposed to get no quarter. And I know: Somebody's got to play gatekeeper on the road to the White House. Better us in the press than anyone else we can think of, right?

Still, I can't remember when a non-incumbent presidential candidate has gotten beaten up quite so badly quite so early. I don't think the punishment has fit the crime. And it's gotten me to wondering: Why all this Bushwhacking now?

Here are some theories:

Bush is Velcro to President Reagan's Teflon. To Bush, everything sticks. If he weren't around, the press would have had to invent him. Think it's fun covering a president who can slip our best shots with a wave and a smile? Once upon a time, we could razz Reagan with the best of them (ahh, for the days of "killer trees") -- but no more. He's immune. We're frustrated. Bush is tonic.

We're refighting the last war. (We always do.) In the last one, you'll recall, Walter Mondale was the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and lots of us were so dazzled by his institutional strength that we figured he'd make it to the convention without a scratch. We were wrong. Well, by gum, we won't be wrong again -- that way.

Bush is the victim of an inside job. An example: When things started to go sour for him two weeks ago when he made his comments about stability in the oil market, you'd be amazed how fast some of his "friends" at the White House charged anonymously into the fray. They agreeably cast the worst possible spin on his remarks for us gaffe-ologists in the press.

Some of that, of course, was pure political mischief from people who do not wish Bush well. But even members of Bush's own campaign team joined in the exercise. Why? Some of it has to do, methinks, with the fact that people who work on political campaigns are hired guns, not zealots or starry-eyed amateurs. Their perceptions and those of the press tend to bounce around in one big echo chamber; they cross-fertilize. These guns have their own future credibility to worry about; they know that campaigns may last for a couple of years, but the press is forever.

Bush is paying the price for starting the 1988 presidential politicking too soon. Did he really have to go out last fall and recruit 456 big GOP names for his PAC's national steering committee? Did he have to line up support from 100 Republican congressmen, and raise more than $6 million -- all with two years to go before the first vote will be cast? The lesson is: You want to become a full-fledged candidate two years out, fine. But be ready (if you're the frontunner) to be a full-time target, too.

And lastly: He deserves it.

This, of course, is the most tantalizing theory of the lot, and it goes to the nub of the matter. We in the press seem to have reached a collective judgment about Bush: He's a decent man with a swell resume. But he doesn't have the fiber, the stomach, the backbone, the instincts, the whatever, for the big one.

Does the public agree? As a matter of fact, they don't. At least not yet. But give them time. "George Bush has more problems with the press than he has with the public," Richard Wirthlin, pollster for Reagan-Bush in 1984, said the other day. He added, ominously, "There does tend to be a convergence."

How do we know Bush can't hack it as president? Well, did you see front page of the Wall Street Journal a few weeks back? There was Bush quoted as saying he'd be in "deep doo doo" if he tried to do something or other.

And do you remember the 1984 campaign, when Bush said, "Zippity doo dah. It's off to the races"; and "The Russians are strong as horseradish"; and "We kicked a little ass."

Bush, in short, stands accused of being politcally tone deaf. Certainly that was the conventional wisdom to come out of 1984 -- shared, perhaps in part, by Bush himself. "The vice president did not feel he had a great 1984," said Ed Rollins, who ran the reelection effort for Reagan-Bush.

But still, I'm troubled. We in the press aren't innocent bystanders. We have a good deal to do with the way a politician comes off. An once we've dismissed one as a lapdog, it tends to be open season.

I thought, for example, that the flap over Bush's oil comments was mostly press hype. Go back and read what he said at the press conference that triggered the episode and you'll find he repeats one theme time and again: "Our answer is market, market. Let the market forces work." A bit later: "We're not going there (to Saudi Arabia) on a price-setting mission, when we ourselves favor market forces."

In answer to a second question a few minutes later, Bush went on to fret about the consequences of a free falling oil prices on national security and on the domestic industry. And he said he would tell the Saudis that "stability in the market is a very important thing."

So you might want to fault Bush for trying to have it both ways, or for being ambiguous. Alternatively, you might want to praise him for seeing all sides of a complex situation. But by choosing to report his comments to mean he was on some sort of price-setting mission, as much of the press did, I think missed the spirit of the remarks.

Thus was born a flap, and people have happily been making jokes about old shoot-himself-in-the-foot-George and oil ever since.

Can Bush survive the ridicule? He's got awfully rough sledding between now and 1988. First, he'll have to explain which Bush is running for president in 1988: the one who differed with Candidate Reagan in 1980 and or the one who has been Reagan's biggest cheerleader ever since.

Next, he'll have to bridge the ideologicial and -- more difficult for him -- the cultural chasms that exist within the voting blocs Reagan has attracted to the Republican Party.

And next, he'll have to make it clear he stands for something. The pollsters all say that what voters want most in their candidates these days is strength and consistency of belief. Bush is a manager, not an ideologue.

When he looks back over his track record as a candidate, there's not a lot of comfort: He's lost more campaigns than he's won.

In short, Bush has all he can handle without our help, thank you.