George Bush, passed over three times by presidents for the vice presidency, formally declared yesterday that he will seek the No. 1 job in his own right.

His declaration for the Republican nomination, coming from a man who immediately left on his 12th trip of 1979 to New Hampshire, took no one by surprise, Bush has been campaigning for others and trying to position himself for well over a year.

In his announcement at the National Press Club here, Bush promised a "new candor" in American government, offered his experience in government as opposed to the "good intentions" of other candidates, and warned that "hard choices" lie ahead if America is to cut federal spending and thus reduce inflation.

Among the other hard problems that lie ahead, however, is whether George Herbert Walker Bush, 54, can overtake far better known opponents for the Republican nomination.

In public opinion surveys of Republicans' choice for the 1980 nomination, Bush has remained steady at 1 to 2 percent.

This despite a year of active politicking and more than a decade of Washington political chores-a two-term Houston congressman who lost two U.S. Senate races, ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican Party during Watergate revelations, envoy to China and directtor of the CIA during difficult times for the agency. Bush was considered twice by President Nixon and once by President Ford to be vice president on the Republican ticket.

With much of his national political success attributable to former president Nixon, Bush's appointments were often criticized as being the wrong man for the wrong job at the wrong time, but he generally emerged from them with high marks and even with compliments from his earlier critics.

Bush is a Connecticut Yankee, the son of a former U.S. senator. Bush moved to Texas and became a successful oil drilling contractor. Frequently referred to as wealthy, he said yesterday he is "a millionaire Texas something or other." It was his government experience and his business success, Bush said, that now qualify him to lead the nation in the 1980s.

Bush said his politics were those "of substance, not symbols; of reason, not bombast; of frankness, not false promise," an apparent reference to the oratory of John B. Connally and Ronald Reagan, who he conceded are the front-runners for the Republican nomination.

There was no doubt who he had in mind, however, when in his prepared statement he said:

"Let there be no mistake regarding the source of our country's current problems, at home and overseas. The failure of the present administration is more then the failure of an individual leader. It is a failure tied to the philosophy of tax-and-spend that has long dominated the leadership of his party . . .the problems that face America are traceable to the reckless national leadership of past years."

Under questioning, Bush specifically excluded former presidents Ford and Nixon from "reckless national leadership of past years."

Rather, he turned to another era of Republicanism, three times referring to former president Eisenhower. At one point he praised the low inflation rates of the 1950s-a period that also saw unemployment that was derisively known as "Eisenhower prosperity."

Bush has previously said the nation may have to risk recession to stop inflation.

His proclaimed "new candor" was greeted throughout the day with press questions to spell out "the hard choices," "the sacrifices" and just what federal programs he would cut. Bush said that his proposals for reducing federal spending would be forthcoming but "not now."

On other issues, Bush:

Said he foresees a national registration of young people for the draft but has not yet concluded that military conscription needs to be resumed. He added that he opposes a universal conscription for both military forces and civilian public works jobs.

Opposed federal funds for abortions and a U.S. constitutional amendment outlawing them. Bush said constitutional amendments should be left to the states and that he opposes abortion "no moral standards."

Said real increases in military spending can be achieved even with a balanced federal budget. "The protection of our freedoms," he said, "cannot be purchased on the cheap."

Argued that the U.S. Senate could reject any arms limitation treaty with the Soviet Union, if it were unacceptable, without prompting a Soviet arms buildup.

Following his morning announcement of his candidacy, Bush embarked on a four-day, eight-city tour of New England, Florida and Alabama, including a planned visit with former governor George C. Wallace.

That campaigning, followed by appearances in Texas, effectively covers the first three days of primary election voting in 1980. Because of his family background in New England, he is expected to do well there, although he declined yesterday to predict just how well he would do or would have to do to remain a candidate.

His afternoon appearances in Hartford, Conn., and Boston were to be followed with a trip to New Hampshire.

Traveling with him is his national campaign manager, James A. Baker, who ran President Ford's election campaign in 1976.

Bush's formal declaration of his candidacy makes life simpler for the "George Bush for President Committee," which was formed in January despite the lack of a candidate. The committee has qualified for federal matching funds, with many of Bush's early contributions coming from highlevel corporation executives.

Bush joins Connally, also a Houston resident, Rep. Philip M. Crane (III), Sen. Lowell Weicker (Conn.), Harold E. Stassen and Los Angeles businessman Benjamin Fernandez in the race for the GOP nomination. Sens. Bob Dole (Kan.) and Howard Baker (Tenn.) and reagan are expected to make formal announcements later this year. CAPTION: Picture, Bush: "The protection of our freedoms cannot be purchased on the cheap." By Gerald Martineau-The Washington Post