TEXAS GOV. George W. Bush is in the enviable position of having converted his rivals into his own best press agents. The slightest deviation from one or another form of party orthodoxy on his part is instantly, not to say desperately, turned by all or some of them into evidence of apostasy. He gets major credit for independence of view for only a minor departure from shared doctrine. At least at this stage of the campaign, the magnification lets him have the issue of true belief both ways.

The governor gave the right answer when asked in New Hampshire the other day whether he would insist, if he became president, that judicial nominees share his view of abortion. "No litmus test," he said. Rivals were quick to respond. Gary Bauer accused him of "waffling." Steve Forbes said, "I believe you should appoint justices on matter of principle. One of those principles is belief in the sanctity of life."

Yet Mr. Bush used the same news conference to reiterate that he is opposed to abortion in most circumstances and to say he would appoint to the bench only judges who shared his "overall philosophy" and what he called his strict-constructionist view of the Constitution. In the same day of campaigning, he managed also to convey that he favors tax cuts and increased defense spending, is opposed to "quotas and racial preferences," supports a constitutional amendment to outlaw flag-burning and thinks that, instead of passing new gun control laws, "we need to enforce the laws on the books." The message to party conservatives was that they have little to fear, even as the litmus test remark may have offered comfort to moderates as well.

But the fact is that, in each of the past two presidential elections, the eventual candidates -- Mr. Bush's father and Bob Dole -- probably erred in not straying far enough. To win the support of some of the party's true believers, both men took positions -- on taxes, to cite only one example -- in which they didn't believe, and which ultimately cost them. It's not clear yet exactly what Gov. Bush believes, but to the extent that he can resist similar entrapment during the nominating process -- insofar as he himself can avoid litmus tests -- that has to be regarded as progress.