It began with Philip Crane, John Connally, John Anderson, Howard Baker, Robert Dole, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. But they've been dropping like flies -- a development we hadn't expected when we undertook this series of interviews, conducted by Mark Shields, with the Republican presidential candidates. And now there are three. Never mind: maybe you'll get an idea not just of what you're going to get but also of what you're missing from these musings of the runners, the runners-up and the fallen-by-the-wayside. Bush:

I've learned several things. I've leaned that I can go the distance physically and mentally. . . . every Tuesday, there's a cataclysmic event, and you get that tension. Or two or three of them, so you have that nail-biting kind of adrenalin thing out there. But in terms of just expenditure of energy and ability to control your thought process and get through this, I'm absolutely confident.

The second thing I've learned is great confidence in dealing with people and knowing that I'd be a good president. This sounds egotistical as the dickens, but I'm much more certain of that than when I started. . . . I've relearned something I learned when I had a hemorraging ulcer in 1960 -- don't worry about something you can't do something about. . . .

Q: What have you learned about the country?

Well, when I get up and say I know we can cope, I know we can -- I really believe this, you see. And some of that stems from past experience and some of it stems from the strength you feel that exists in the country. . . . Baker:

I've learned that running for president is a special art form, and those of us who've never done it don't realize that. . . . it is far more haphazard than I ever dreamed it was. Your time allocations are so ragged, your commitments of resources are so great that it almost leads me to think that you have got to have a corps of professional presidential candidates. It used to be you'd pick a president from the Senate or maybe from business or the academic world. pYou almost now have to find somebody who knows what that special art form is all about. . . .

I traveled through Iowa for almost a month, and in that whole time, I didn't meet half a dozen people I didn't enjoy talking to and I didn't gain some insights from. . . . The hugeness of the country, and the hideous responsibility that comes from a presidential campaign or from presidential service. . . . Anderson:

I guess it's given me a sense that I really have a lot more stick-to-it-iveness than I ever realized because it is such a long steep climb that you can't be discouraged, you can't permit yourself, you know, to be deflected from the course because you stumble and maybe fall and scrape your knees and so on when you're making your way along the road, and I think it has given me a new sense of confidence and purpose. . . .

You know, I'm really surprised at the extent to which people -- if you really address them very directly on issues, you can capture their attention and earn their loyalty. . . . There are an awful lot of intensely -- and I hate to use the word patriotic because some people think it is simply the refuge, last refuge left of scoundrels -- but, you know, in the very noblest sense there are an awful lot of very patriotic people in this country who don't just think of themselves, they aren't nearly as selfish and as self-centered as I would have thought. Reagan:

Well, physically I've learned that I can go the distance, and possibly better than a great many of those who have to accompany me on the trips. . . . I confirmed my belief in the people of this country . . . you discover -- the only way I can say it is the greatness of the people of this country. Dole:

Well, I think I have discovered you can't be a part-time candidate and be successful. You have to make a decision, whether it's the Senate or your bank or a labor union or whatever. You're going to say, "Okay, I'm going to do this, and that's it." That's the goal, because without the total commitment to that one goal, it's hard to put matters together, it's hard to put money together, manpower. . . . You know I went out there thinking people wanted to hear about the issues. Maybe I've been around the Senate too long. I notice Ted Kennedy's talking that way. I think maybe we're issue oriented here. People want to deal in concepts, visions. "What would you do for the '80s? Don't tell me about carry-over basis or this tax or that tax or this program." Though I still believe people care in the final analysis. . . .

I've learned a lot about the country, that people are, whether Democrats or Republicans or independents -- they are decent, they are still upbeat. Crane:

I have discovered that I can abide more Holiday Inns than I thought any person in a lifetime probably would advocate. . . . and you know the rubber chicken. Fortunately, I like chicken. No, I tell you, what I think probably is in taking the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and what sometimes you interpret as totally unfair criticism and what, in fact, at times is a totally unfair attack, I think builds character. As I told my wife when we had those abusive attacks from that personality up there in New Hampshire, I said, don't despair over that. I said, your friends know better and your enemies want to believe the worst. I said, this is really kind of a unique blessing in one sense. You get a chance to flush out your fair-weather friends. I said, how many times do you get a chance to figure out who those people are for sure? . . . . the only hurts as a candidate come from the realization that I made a decision that had that spillover effect that exposed people who love, who aren't really equipped for this, to hurts that were not their fault. Connally:

Well, I don't think I've learned anything new. I think I knew myself pretty well . . . . I guess I have become more and more impatient with our inability to cope with what I think the real problems of the country are just because I'm so concerned about the problems.

Q: WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT THE COUNTRY?

That the country is a stronger country than its leaders give it credit for. That the people are ahead of the political leadership of the country, and that the people are not responsible for the difficulties in which we find ourselves. tRather, the political leaders in my judgment have failed to provide leadership.