HOUSTON -- George Bush answered one of the key questions about his presidential candidacy just by calling one of his opponents by his rightful name in the first GOP debate here Wednesday night.
Two sharp-tongued long shots with nothing to lose, former secretary of state Alexander M. Haig and former Delaware governor Pierre S. (Pete) duPont IV, were trying to use the front-running vice president as their punching bag, swatting him back and forth for his support of the Reagan administration's prospective arms-control agreement with the Soviet Union.
DuPont was particularly aggressive, going back at Bush a second time on the issue and saying the vice president offered no ''vision, principle or policy'' of his own but just slavish acceptance of anything that Ronald Reagan wanted. ''We're waiting for details and we're hearing generalities,'' duPont complained.
And then Bush snapped: ''Pierre, let me help you.'' In the next 45 seconds, Bush rattled off three reasons why the intermediate-range nuclear forces agreement was good for Europe, the United States and the military balance of power, told off those ''outsiders'' who enjoy ''carping and criticizing'' while people with responsibilities make ''the tough calls,'' and unloaded on duPont's idea of offering young people an alternative to Social Security as ''a nutty idea . . . a dumb idea.''
It was fast, it was surgically neat, and it was a political execution -- starting with those first five words: ''Pierre, let me help you.''
Why? Well, there are two candidates in the Republican race who prefer to shun the titles that long preceded their names. Haig does not want to be called ''general'' because he knows many voters consider him belligerent and overly aggressive. And Marion G. (Pat) Robertson does not want to be called ''reverend'' because he knows many of those same voters worry about mixing religion and politics.
DuPont has a different sensitivity. He knows his family name connotes immense wealth, and being Pierre IV is exotic enough to carry an additional whiff of snobbism. That's why he prefers to be called just plain ''Pete'' in politics.
Bush, who has known him for decades, would never call him Pierre in private conversation. As a gentleman and a friend, Bush would respect duPont's wishes. But with that single sentence, and the public intonation of the name Pierre, he signaled duPont -- and the whole politically attuned audience for the televised ''Firing Line'' debate which opened the Republican presidential campaign -- that it was ''no more Mr. Nice Guy'' for the veep.
A better way to bury the ''wimp'' image which has plagued Bush (and which Haig invoked in one of his attacks) could not have been found.
Many of us reporters who have watched Bush over the years have wondered if he possessed the primal political instinct it takes to survive in high-stakes presidential competition: the street smarts to protect himself when under attack and the instinct for the jugular to dispatch an opponent. Bush has filled out his impressive re'sume' by appointment. The question about him has always been: Can he fight and win?
In his exchange with duPont, and at several other points in the debate, Bush showed exactly the instincts that he had so conspicuously lacked in his encounters with the other Republicans in the 1980 presidential primaries and in his debate with Geraldine Ferraro during the 1984 campaign.
He was tough when he needed to be and skillful in evading punches, so he was the clear winner in press-room evaluations and in the first round of interviews with voters who watched the debate.
Admittedly, Bush didn't face the toughest imaginable questions. No one asked him to explain or justify his proposals for cutting capital-gains taxes or giving tax breaks for college savings funds, both of which can be criticized as ''help-the-rich'' schemes. No one asked him about his role in the Iran-contra affair or challenged his exaggerated claim to have been the ''co-pilot'' of the Reagan administration for the past seven years.
But Bush did deal with everything that was thrown at him and, because he came through unscathed, his status as the favorite was enhanced.
What helped underscore Bush's performance was the contrast to his leading rival, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. Dole's makeup gave him the pink cheeks of St. Nicholas, and he appeared determined to be just as cheery -- no matter what. Intent on burying the reputation for meanness that has lingered from his 1976 vice presidential campaign, Dole seemed uncommonly eager to ingratiate himself with everyone on the stage as he offered frequent humorous observations on the proceedings.
If he managed to win the Mr. Congeniality award, it came at the expense of blurring the image of tough, effective leadership which has been his main asset in the struggle with Bush.
On the issue of the impending treaty, where Bush doggedly stood off the substantive criticisms from Haig, duPont, Robertson and Rep. Jack Kemp, Dole's position was a mushy, ''Well, yeah, maybe, but I'm not sure yet which side I'm on.''
Kemp profited, too, from Dole's self-effacement, coming across as a serious, informed and genuine advocate for his conservative views.
But this night belonged to Bush -- the man who dared to call a Pierre a Pierre.