In that branch of American showbiz called presidential politics, last week's hot property was George Herbert Walker Bush.

Raves from Republicans in Iowa were better for Bush than rapturous reviews from a new musical's first critics in Boston or New Haven. Suddenly the press corps accompanying him tripled in size. Prominent Republicans who had been asked long ago to write policy papers for Bush decided last week they could find time to oblige.

The primal system of communication by which American politicans pass The Word passed along a new word: George Bush was serious -- he might be a winner.

Once again, the American political process had pushed forward an unknown figure, a masked rider whose silver bullets gleamed, but whose personal qualities, political beliefs and record were hardly known. Perhaps this is America's new quadrennial miracle.

This version of the miracle has quite a lot in common with the last one, Jimmy Carter. Both are strongly self-confident men. Both have a long history of winning over the people they deal with, often convincing conservatives that they are conservative, moderates that they are moderate. Bush was born to the American establishment, and Carter was a total outsider, but in recent years both chose to participate in one of the establishment's characteristic endeavors, David Rockefeller's Trilateral Commission.

But Bush is no Carter, and not simply because of his different breeding. His basic instincts are "very conservative," as his friend Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md). put it last week, enunciating the "very" with care.

Bush actively entered politics in 1964 as a "Goldwater Republican" who opposed civil rights legislation, denounced the nuclear test ban treaty and said he might favor the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam. A few days ago he talked with a Los Angeles Times interviewer about his belief that America or the Soviet Union could come out "a winner" in a nuclear exchange.

For many years Bush was a friend and protege of Richard Nixon. In January, 1973, when Nixon needed a loyal and reliable new chairman of the Republican National Committee to hold the party together through Watergate, he picked George Bush for the job.

Bush showed his loyalty (he said it was first of all to the party) by declining to criticize Nixon throughout the Watergate affair. On Aug. 5, 1974 when the "smoking gun" tape was released, implicating Nixon in the coverup, Bush told The Washington Post yesterday, he wrote the President privately urging him to resign. But there was no such urging in public.

Bush has held many jobs in public life: congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, envoy to China, GOP chairman, director of central intelligence, candidate for president. At every one of them Bush has made a good impression and good friends. This may be Bush's greatest accomplishment -- he has always gotten along. Some critics say he gets along too well.

He gets along partly by letting people think he is on their side. On the campaign stump in the last few days he has demonstrated this technique with a see-saw approach to many issues, balancing one position against another. So he has declared himself in favor of growth, but also of "a sound environment." He is for nuclear energy, but also for "massive research on solar energy." He is for registering women for the draft, but not for "equality in the foxhole."

Last week, an exultant Bush, charged with Iowa's precinct caucuses victory, flew to New Hampshire to celebrate what he called "big Mo," his new momentum, with more 14-hour days of speeches, factory tours, and news conferences.

A plaid parka covering his gray Brooks Brothers suit, he was the picture of gee-whiz confidence, smiling, backslapping, kissing old ladies and throwing a snowball for the TV cameras, "I'm up for the '80s!' he repeatedly declared. 'Intent and Earnest'

A Texan who had watched George Bush make his fortune and start his political career once wrote of him that "he had always seemed a little like Scott Fitzgerald made him up, intent and earnest and ambitious with the easy grace of a man charmed."

The temptation to attribute Bush to a work of fiction is understandable: reduced to black and white, he is almost too perfect a specimen to believe.

Bush is a product of the time and class that preoccupied F. Scott Fitzgerald: the moneyed and established eastern elite of the first half of this century. Bush's father, Prescott, was the managing director of the investment banking house of Brown Brothers, Harriman, and then a Republican senator from Connecticut. He put young George through Greenwich Country Day School, where he shone, and Andover, where he shone more brightly, and then Yale, where he had as perfect a career as the university has ever seen.

Before Yale, though, he did a stint as a Navy pilot in World War II. At one time he was the youngest flier in the Navy. He was shot down in the Pacific, his fellow crew-members were killed, and his dramatic rescue by an American submarine was recorded for posterity (and for this year's campaign ads) on film.

So he came to college as a grownup, with a wife and child. The guys called him "Poppy" and elected him to everything. He was captain of the baseball team. Phi Beta Kappa, and a member of the Yale senior society called Skull and Bones, a redoubt for the WASP elite.

The obvious thing would have been to go to Wall Street, perhaps with a law degree, but Bush wanted to get away from a world in which he would always be "Pres Bush's son George." He was one of several adventurous members of his Yale class who decided to go into the oil business. Eventually he moved to Texas. A Texas Romance

Bush grew up in Fairfield County, Conn., a world of stone mansions, wood paneling and vast lawns. But soon after leaving Yale, he and his wife, Barbara, and their growing family were installed on Easter Egg Row in Odessa, Tex., a brightly painted, FHA-financed postwar housing development that looked as though the mortgage might last longer than the houses.

Bush learned the rudiments of the business selling and servicing drilling equipment. In 1951, with a partner named John A. Oberbey, Bush started out for himself. They put together deals, bought up royalties and took what risks they felt they could, doing quite well.

Two years later Bush entered a venture with neighbors who had come from Oklahoma, Hugh and Bill Liedtke. Each of them raised half a million dollars, the Liedtkes from friends in Tulsa, Bush from back East. His uncle, George Herbert Walker, an investment banker from whom he was named, arranged for most of Bush's share. (His parents put in $50,000.)

Later Bush would say that he was a self-made oilman, and apart from his parents' and Uncle Herbie's role, this was true. Once he had the necessary financial backing, Bush and the Liedtkes made a great success of their company, which they named Zapata Petroleum for the then-current Marlon Brando film, Viva Zapata!

In an interview last week in his 34th-floor office, overlooking downtown Houston, Hugh Liedtke recalled that their first key decision at Zapata was on a single, $850,000 investment.

They had a theory that several scattered wells in West Texas were tapping the same huge oil field, and after a lot of study they decided this was true. They drilled 130 times around what they thought was the field, and "we never drilled a dry hole," as Liedtke recalled the experience. Not a single duster. They were off.

Later they formed a subsidary called Zapata Offshore, and this became Bush's responsibility. Eventually he and the Liedtkes divided their holdings, leaving Bush in control of Offshore. He moved the firm to Houston and began the most exciting phase of his business career.

Offshore drilling was in its infancy in the mid-1950s, but Bush was betting that it would become big business, as of course it did. The firm was responsible for a number of breakthroughs in offshore drilling technology, and it was soon booming. Bush's old partner, Hugh Liedtke, attributed its success to the sort of calculated risk-taking that was revealed in their first decision to go for broke in that single giant oilfield. Active in Politics

The success of Zapata Offshore made Bush wealthy. (According to the unusually detailed disclosures he made last year, his net worth is $1.8 million.) Success combined with his easy charm and polished Fairfield County style also made him an increasingly prominent member of the Houston community. He became active in Republican politics, an endeavor that did not attract very many Texans in the early 1960s.

In 1964 the political ambition that friends say was in Bush since his Yale days emerged in public view. He announced he would run for the Republican nomination to challenge Sen. Ralph Yarborough, the incumbent liberal Democrat.

If a politician's first campaign is particularly revealing, as some students of the process believe, Bush's race for the Senate in 1964 revealed a staunchy conservative young Republican. He backed Barry Goldwater 1,000 percent, and enunciated a hard-line foreign policy.

During his successful primary campaign, Bush came out against the pending 1964 Civil Rights Act on "constitutional" grounds. In the general election, he expressed "shock" that Yarborough had voted to shut off a debate over civil rights. He said emphatically that the Test Ban Treaty of 1963 "will not work." (It remains in force to the satisfaction of Russians and Americans.) He said the United States should withdraw from the United Nations "if Red China is admitted."

Candidate Bush came out for drastic reductions in foreign aid, and for the restoration of prayer in school. He said America should recognize a Cuban government in exile, and support it when it sought to reoccupy its homeland. Bush warned voters to reject Yarborough's "Reuther-dominated left-wing philosophy that's selling Texas down the river!" (The reference was to the late Walter Reuther, then president of the United Auto Workers.) According to an Associated Press dispatch at the time, Bush favored "a limited extension of the war in Vietnam including restricted use of nuclear weapons if 'militarily prudent.'"

Asked last week if any of the views expressed in that campaign have changed, Bush said "some things have changed, sure." The only one he could remember was China.

"Do you have any regrets from those early campaigns," Bush was asked on Friday. "None at all," he replied.

Except, of course, for the fact of losing; George Bush was never fond of losing. Yarborough beat him badly, 56 to 44 percent. He explained later that this way easy to do once Bush wrapped himself in the Goldwater mantle. In Texas in 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson was a more useful ally, and despite PAST FEUDS, arborough had LBJ on his side.

In 1966, after Texas seats in the House had been redistricted partly as a result of a lawsuit Bush helped to bring, he ran for the House from a wealthy new Houston district. In that campaign the opposition was further to the right than Bush, and he seemed deliberately to strike a more moderate pose. For example, he told The Wall Street Journal that year that he regretted not having repudiated the John Birch Society earlier he did so in 1966. Served Two-Terms

Bush served two terms in the House. During these four years Bush worked to establish himself among colleagues and in the world of Washington dinner parties as an attractive, intelligent and reliable fellow. If he made any enemies during those four years, history has lost them.

"I don't think I've ever heard a member of Congress from either party say anything adverse about George Bush," said his old friend John Hammerschmidt (R-Ark.) last week.

He voted as a conservative on fiscal matters, and defended Big Oil. He was able to do this effectively from his seat on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. He was the first freshman member in 60 years to win a place on the panel. ("I thought the world of him," recalls Wilbur Mills, then the chairman of Ways and Means.) He supported the war in Vietnam.

But Bush went beyond conventional southern Republican positions. He fought for a strong ethics bill and was quick to disclose his own personal finances. He developed an interest in world population and cosponsored legislation to expand domestic birth control programs. He gave important jobs on his staff to women when this wasn't yet fashionable.

One Bush vote that attracted a lot of attention in Houston was his support for the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which included a hotly controversial open-housing provision. Bush went home right after the vote and faced a fierce reaction that he described later in a letter written on an airplane to a friend. Bush's letter was quoted in a 1971 Harper's Magazine article:

"I never dreamed the reaction would be so violent. Seething hatred -- the epithets -- the real chicken shit stuff in spades -- to our [office] girls: 'You must be a nigger or a Chinaman' -- and on and on -- and the country club crowd disowning me and denouncing me . . .

"Tonight I got on this plane and this older lady came up to me. She said, 'I'm a conservative Democrat from the district, but I'm proud, and will always vote for you now' -- and her accent was Texan (not Connecticut) and suddenly somehow I felt that maybe it would all be OK -- and I started to cry -- with the poor lady embarrassed to death -- I couldn't say a word to her . . ."

Bush did vote for the bill on April 10, 1968, but a few minutes earlier he had voted against the supporters of open housing in what Congressional Quarterly described as "the key vote" of the day.

That key vote was on a procedural motion that might have allowed the House to send the open-housing provisions back to a conference committee, thus stalling or perhaps killing them. Pro-open-housing liberals won that vote 229 to 195, but Bush was one of the 195. Then he joined the majority that sent the whole bill to the president by 250 to 172.

In 1970 the Nixon White House and the Republican leadership in Congress had high hopes of strengthening GOP representation in the House and Senate. Sen. Yarborough, considered vulnearable, was up again, and pressure began to mount on Bush to challenge him. Bush liked the House and was doing well there, but friends say it didn't require too much pressure to push him into the Senate race -- he was tempted.

The liberal Yarborough seemed a vulnerable target that year, and Bush was optimistic. But Lloyd Bentsen got to the target first, beating Yarborough in a bitter Democratic primary. Bentsen was John Connally's candidate.

His victory set up a Senate race between two pro-oil conservatives. Bush and Bentsen seemed to agree on every major issue. Even so Bush was doing well in the campaign, so well that some polls had him significantly ahead of Bentsen during the final weeks. Many Yarborough liberals -- for instance, Kaye Northcott, editor of the Liberal Texas Observer -- decided to vote for Bush to try to prevent the Connally faction from taking complete control of the Democratic Party.

In the view of Yarborough, the Observer and other liberals, Bush tossed his chances away that year by welcoming to Texas both Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon in the last weeks of the campaign. Bush's campaign until then was based on "The man, not the party," and he rarely mentioned his Republican identification. But both Agnew and Nixon made sharply partisan remarks in their Texas appearances, the turnout in traditional Democratic areas was higher than expected, and Bentsen beat Bush 53 to 47 percent.

One of the state's leading Democrats speculated last week that Bush has always had "a proclivity for hanging on somebody else's coattails."

This was a hard defeat for Bush. But Friends say he didn't let himself get depressed. Instead he was convinced by friends to ask Nixon for the job as ambassador to the United Nations. In some 20-minute meeting he did suggest to Nixon that he take that job, and Nixon gave it to him.

Over the years the United States has sent a rich variety of men to the United Nations, from modest professional diplomats to flamboyant and self-promoting politicans. In the opinion of many U.N. officials and foreign diplomats, Bush may have been one of the best ambassadors the United States has ever had on the East River. Takes Party Post

Bush himself has acknowledged that he was essentially an executor of administration policy at the United Nations, not an innovator himself. His skills were in personal relations, not policy formulation.

Bush like the U.N. job. Friends speculate that it was an important accomplishment for him, since it was his first foray into diplomacy. But in January 1973, Nixon insisted that Bush come to the Republican National Committee, and Bush, ever the loyalist, took the job.

Bush first met Nixon in the mid-1950s. They became friendly in the '60s, when Bush got actively into politcs. When Nixon landed in the White House in 1969, he found Bush in the House and quickly took a shine to the handsome young Texan. Bush became one of the White House's favorite congressmen.

At the end of 1972, after their triumphant reelection, Nixon and his inner circle wanted to replace Sen. Bob Dole at the RNC. They sought a candidate who was both indisputably honest and indisputably loyal to the president. Bush was the one.

At first Bush was ill at ease in his new job. One Republican state chairman and two prominent southern Republicans. They were talking about party business, when Bush Began reminiscing about his friendship with some African leader, then pointed to his picture on the wall. The southerners were not impressed.

Bush was not familiar with national party organization or rules. He didn't know a lot of the personalities. But he overcame these problems, according to members of the committee and reporters who covered him. He became "a roaring success," according to one.

He brought to the job a stubborn enthusiasm, despite the steadily worsening Watergate crisis. In 1973 he traveled the country -- 40 states, 118 speeches during his first year as chairman. The message was that "the party is separate from Watergate."

"I get kind of cranked up inside about keeping the party system going," Bush said that year. In the process, he met almost all the Republicans that mattered in the country -- a circle of acquaintances that has helped him enormously in his political campaign.

Bush never wavered in his loyalty to Nixon, even when the edifice of Nixon's administration was crumbling around him. On Aug. 6, three days before Nixon resigned and after the release of the "smoking gun" tape showing Nixon's early complicity in the Watergate cover-up, Bush issued a formal statement:

"Resignation is something that the president alone must decide," Bush said, adding his confidence that "the president will do what is right -- what is best for the country."

At a news conference last week, Bush said "I suggested that he resign right near the time when he did." The Washington Post could find no such public statement, and Bush said yesterday the message was in a personal letter to Nixon.

In October 1974, President Ford asked Bush to take on yet another assignment -- American envoy in Peking. Bush agreed. It was the quietest time in his life in recent years -- the only time he has been able to do much recreational reading, he said not long ago.

One of the diplomats who worked for Bush in China recalled, "When Bush took over from David Bruce you knew an executive officer had taken over the mission." Bush landed running. His plane arrived at 2 p.m., and at 5 p.m. he was hosting a reception for the entire mission staff. For all but the highest ranking, it was the first time they had been in the envoy's residence.

Bush impressed his staff as hard working, and eventually effective. He took whatever openings he could find to meet Chinese officials, and he argued American interests forcefully when he met them, aides report. "He's a very conventional thinker," one Foreign Service officer said, "but he thinks for himself."

This same colleague said Bush brought out the loyalty of his associates by treating them respectfully. Sometimes, this source siad, his affection for someone overpowered his judgement about their abilities. "He's gung ho enough that if he likes someone he may put too much fath in them." Switch to CIA

Bush stayed in Peking a little more than a year, when Ford asked him to return to Washington to take over the Central Intelligence Agency. It was a controversial choice in the Senate because of Bush's past identification with partisans politics. Eventually Ford had to promise not to consider Bush as a running mate in 1976 to convince the Senate to confirm him.

There was some puzzlement over why Bush would want to take over the troubled agency. Its misdeeds and shortcomings were still tumbling into the headlines as the result of House and Senate investigations. The directorship of the CIA hardly looked like a political asset, and Bush acknowledged that he hoped to return to politics one day.

Nevertheless, he said he regarded the work as "desperately important to the survival of this country and to the survival of freedom around the world. And second," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee, "old-fashioned as it may seem to some, it is my duty to serve my country."

Bush pledged to keep politics out of ntelligence, and many praised him for succeeding. "I was very concerned about his appointment," recalled Sen. Mathias, who was a member of the Intelligence committee. "But it worked out fine." William Miller, the committee's staff director, said Bush "worked very hard, asked for help and advice and before long he had everyone's respect."

He also reassured the veteran CIA employes who were feeling distinctly unloved at the time Bush came to the agency. "Instead of coming in hostile and suspicious as [Adm. Stansfield] Turner did after Bush , he took a look around the agency, talked to people and decided he liked it. It was terribly important to have a boss who felt like that," recalls E. Henry Knoche, who served as deputy director under Bush.

Bush built a reputation among intelligence officers as a man who could listen and change his mind. In the summer of 1976, sources says, alarums were sounded over what some considered provocative activity by the Chinese on their side of the Taiwan straits. But the State Department disputed that interpretation forcefully.

In the ensuing bureaucratic battle, which included a high-level meeting at CIA headquarters, Bush refused to be stampeded by the alarmists who turned out to be wrong. Although he was CIA director, he also gave face to some junior State Department participants whom he remembered from past diplomatic duty. He invited them into his office to see his Chinese rugs, leaving some senior advisers from other agencies wondering what was going on.

"He's not the kind of person who goes out looking for issues," added another CIA veteran who knew Bush while he was at the agency, "but he really did a tremendous job stabilizing the situation, improving morale and getting people working again."

"He's not an intellectual," this source said. "He lives day to day and he doesn't brood over anything. He doesn't agonize. But he's very competitive. He's ferocious on the tennis court. He's got to win."

Bush's decision to resign when President Carter was inaugurated troubled Knoche a bit because that carried with it a suggestion that the job had been politicized. But the deputy DCI was still impressed enough with his boss to award Bush the CIA's Intelligence Medal of Merit for his burst of activity following Carter's election.

In a single day, Bush met with President Ford alone in the Oval Office, then sat down with Vice President Rockefeller, conferred with the head of the Office of Management and Budget, about a money crunch, and then flew down to Plains, Ga., with Knoche to brief Carter and Vice President-elect Mondale for six hours on the CIA's secrets, sources and methods. On the flight back, Bush drafted a memo for Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, who was to see Carter the next day, and dropped it off at Kissinger's house at 1:30 a.m., Knoche, as the man in charge of the CIA's day-to-day operations, took it upon himself to give Bush his medal at the daily, top-level staff meeting in Langley a few hours later. Careful Planner

George Bush has always planned his steps with care. He thought hard about that West Texas oil field before sinking 130 expensive wells into it. He thought hard in 1977 about running for president of the United States.

This was hardly the first time the issue had come up in his life. At Yale, his classmate William J. Clarks recalls, he and Bush used to joke about the prospect that Bush might someday appoint Clark his secretary of state. (In recent months Clark has raised $400,000 for Bush, but he says he isn't interested in becoming Secretary.)

Yale friends like Clark and Richard E. Jenkins of Houston, who ate Chistmas dinner with the Bushes last month, don't claim to understand what it is in Bush that pushed him into the enormous human leap required to make a serious run for the White House. "He had a plan and he stuck to it," Jenkins said. "He knows he has this enormous energy level and drive," added Clark.

Bush also had well-placed supporters, more than the outside world realized for a long time. He has many of the best political operatives in the party working for him, including senior members of President Ford's re-election campaign. He has been working doggedly for nearly two years on his run for the White House, much the way Jimmy Carter worked in 1974-76.

He doesn't like to dwell on his old school tie connections, but they are important. One Yale classmate said Bush is relying heavily on Yale graduates who helped on the ambitious "Campaign for Yale," raising millions for the university in recent years. "It's been converted to the Campaign for Bush," this man said.

Bush's friend Clark couldn't disguise his enthusiasm during a recent telephone interview: "I'm getting the biggest kick out of this. I told a friend of mine, this is the first time i've really been excited about a presidential candidate since Wendell Willkie!" Enjoys the Race

Bush is obviously having a good time, too. He tells audiences that it is no sacrifice to run for president, that he enjoys it. When asked why he wants to run for president, Bush is more voluble than Teddy Kennedy, but hardly more revealing. He lists his qualifications: businessman, naval pilot, congressman, CIA director.

He says it was living in China that made him realize the importance of freedom, of religion, of family, of neighborhoods. He says he thinks he can do a good job. It is a disjointed litany at times, delivered by rote, varying little from speech to speech, but it pleases his audiences. And this past week they were more attentive than ever.

The morning after his stunning victery in Iowa, Bush rose at 5:30 a.m., appeared on three network morning shows and boarded his plane for New Hampshire. In the next four days, he would give 12 speeches, hold six news conferences, meet with the editorial boards of four newspapers and tour four factories in four states.

It was an exercise designed to show off the stamina of this new media star and it worked. The press could hardly keep up with his 14-hour days.

Doggedly pursuing the shadow of Ronald Reagan, Bush often brings up his own age, 55, and his own athletic vigor. Boasting that he had run his 3.8 miles, he told a press conference the morning after Iowa "I don't think we're running for athlete of the year. But if we were, I'd win."

In his speeches, Bushs enthusiasm seemed to infect his audiences. The size of his crowds and the decibel level of applause increased notably after Iowa.

"I an an optimist about this country," he says. "I believe the glass is half full, not half empty . . . I believe in the fundamentals. I believe in the strength this country gets from family, I believe in the strength we get from our own religious conviction. I believe in the concept of neighborhoods."

As Carter did in 1976, Bush now talks about "Watergate with its ugliness and its lie." He talks of "regaining the respect that the United States has lost abroad." He talks of leadership, decency, integrity -- those vauge yet powerfully suggestive words that Carter used so effectively four years ago.

A Bush-Carter race would be interesting if only to see which candidate would best succeed in being all things to all people. Conservatives think Bush is a conservative. Moderates suspect he is a closet liberal.Bush has no intention of enlightening either side.

Asked if he is a conservative, Bush said, "On the Republican side, there is less division in 1980 on the specific issues than there was, say, in 1964 where you had a clear division. And so I think people are going to be looking at who is the leader, who is best equipped to take this country in the '80s on our side and to optimistically solve some problems."

Asked if he is a moderate, Bush demurred, "I'm not sure about that perception. The press is too busy labeling us and putting us into categories."

After Carter's State of the Union address, Bush called for a naval blockade of Iran to "tighten the economic noose," stepping up pressure to free the hostages. He was hazy, however, on how the United States could enforce such a move without the support of allies.

Bush's main foreign policy theme is Jimmy Carter's inconsistency. He criticizes the president for convincing German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt to support the neutron bomb and then changing his mind. He criticizes him for canceling the BI bomber and insufficiently funding the MX missile and naval improvements.

But the most vehement attack is on the Democrats' efforts to deny American aid to certain countries which torture and imprison their own citizens. It is inconsistent, he says, to criticize Argentina without criticizing Cuba. He would criticize both, he said, "but quietly."

Carter, Bush claims, has sacrificed strategic interests for human rights. "We should not impose our standard of human rights on every country around the world. China is a good example. We must improve relations, but if we start dictating to them or cutting them off because of human rights, we will diminish our strategic interests."

When Bush first announced, his early campaign literature avoided mentioning his CIA directorship. Now Bush trumpets the fact and audiences applaud enthusiastically when he says he knows "exactly how to strengthen the CIA." Among other measures, he would try to restrict the Freedom of Information Act, he said, so that "Russians can't write in and get information."

Although Bush tries to outdo his opponents, both Democrats and Republicans, in hawkishness, ironically he is attacked by the ultra-right for his past membership in the Trilateral Commission, the same private foreign policy group that gave Jimmy Carter crediability four years ago.

Despite the nation's infatuation herst, N.H. Republican Women's Club, a flier advertising hsi Trilateral Commission connection was placed on every windshield. Bush responds by pointing to his record as a war hero and his decorations for patriotism while in government service.

Despite the nation's infatuation with foreign affairs, Bush predicts that the fall election will be won and lost on economic issues. Of his primary opponents, he says, "I am the only one to have built a business, met a payroll."

Bush says he can cut today's 13 percent inflation to 1 percent by balancing the federal budget, limiting its annual growth to 7 percent and getting rid of excessive regulations.

He advocates a tax cut of $20 billion, with half the benefits going to individuals and half to business to stimulate investment. He would cut the corporate tax rate by 5 percent in the next five years.

Bush opposes a constitutional amendment to balance the budget. He advocates a tighter fiscal policy and says the result would be an expansion of credit and lower interest rates.

On energy, he says, "I'm an across the board increase-the-supply-of-energy person" -- a philosophy that warms the hearts of the oil companies that have substantial interest in coal, uranium and solar technology. Bush occasionally mentions conservation, but it usually comes as a after-thought.

While he claims to have a good environmental record, Bush said he would amend the Clean Air Act and the stripmine act to make it easier to mine and burn coal -- a move which environmentalists contend would increase lung disease and damage crops with acid rain.

Whatever the issue, Bush avoids criticizing other Republicans -- a move he calls "the eleventh commandment." For Bush, one of the most professional politicians to run for president, party loyalty is supreme. It explains, perhaps, why he did not criticize Nixon sooner. It also provides an excuse for not differentiating himself from his opponents.

Bush contends that confrontation between Republicans now will only open the party to the divisions that tore it apart in 1964. He tells audiences. "I remember sitting in a precinct in Midland, Tex., in 1952, the first year they ever had a [Republican] primary.

"My wife and I were the precinct judges to guard the voting box. We guarded it well. Three people voted all day: me, my wife and one drunk Democrat. I've seen Midland go from that a Republican county. I believe in political organization."

For the time being, the crowds are loving it. At the Amherst Republican women's club meeting, Bertha Crawford, 75, listened to Bush with an enraptured gaze. "He's conservative. He's honest, He's sincere. He's intelligent," she said.

The same speech elicited a slightly different response from Mary Clare Ryan, of Brooklin, N.H. He came across as a "moderate," she said. Then, reminded that Bush and Reagan agree on many issues, she added, "But Bush doesn't make it sound so bad."

The confusion has served the candidate well. In a interview before the Iowa caucuses, Bush's political strategist, David Keene, a former Reagan man, said that Bush had avoided issues early in his campaign, but was ready to deal with them now. "Once that starts," he said, "people will begin to realize the guy really is a conservative. But by then, we hope the moderates will be locked up. It's only the conservatives [in the party] who care about the issues." Earlier Campaign

Harry Treleaven, the ad man immortalized for his role in Nixon's 1968 campaign in Joe McGinniss's book "The Selling of the President," worked for George Bush in 1966. Bush was his first politician.

Later, according to McGinniss, Treleaven wrote a report on Bush's successful race for Congress that year. In it he observed that "most national issues today are so complicated, so difficult to understand and have opinions on that they either intimidate or more often, bore the average voter. Few politicians recognize this fact."

In Houston, Treleaven found, Bush was seen as "an extremely likable person," but "there was a haziness about exactly where he stood politically." That suited Treleaven just fine. "There'll be few opportunities for logical persuasion," he wrote, "which is all right -- because probably more people vote for irrational, emotional reasons that professional politicians suspect."

One other thing Treleaven noted: "People sympathize with a man who tries hard; they are also flattered that anyone would really exert himself to get their vote. Bush therefore, must be shown as a man who's working his heart out to win." accomplishment for him, since it was his first foray into diplomacy. B