Republican vicepresidential candidate George Bush returned today to the cheers of his adopted hometown, but the memory lingered on of a political ticket that might have been.

In a warmup introduction for her friend Bush before a shopping center crowd, Republican politician Anne Armstrong said: "Gov. [William] Clements has consented to be the [Texas] chairman of the Reagan-Ford ticket . . . "

The crowd gasped. Armstrong, who is scheduled to be named cochairman of the Reagan campaign next week, corrected herself and said, "The Reagan-Bush ticket."

Moments later Clements referred to "the difficult decision" Ronald Reagan had made in choosing Bush as his running mate after the collapse of an 11th-hour attempt to put former president Ford on the ticket.

Houston was the first stop of the general election campaign for Reagan and Bush, who left Detroit early today after praising the city and its citizens for the manner in which they hosted the Republican National Convention.

More than a thousand enthusiastic supporters, together with a sprinkling of pickets who favor the Equal Rights Admendment, turned out in an opulent Houston shopping center to greet the Republican presidential team.

Bush served two terms as a Houston congressman, and carried all four of the city's congressional districts against Reagan in the May 3 Texas primary.

Texas is considered to be a battleground state in the fall campaign. But Reagan and Bush, still savoring their mutual triumph at the Republican convention, made only perfunctory speeches today and struck few blows against their Democratic opponents.

Reagan repeated a line that he had used at the convention in saying that he was engaged in "a crusade, not a campaign."

And Bush warned against Republican overconfidence in the fall.

"I don't believe it will be an easy battle in the fall," Bush said.

"Given Jimmy Carter's record, it ought to be, but it's not."

Before the rally here, Bush and his wife Barbara, hosted Reagan and his wife Nancy, at his fashionable suburban home, which he has placed up for sale at an asking price of $890,000.

About 100 neighbors, some of them dressed in tennis whites, turned out on a sweltering 103-degree day to cheer Reagan and Bush and wave American flags.

One neighbor, Jinx Charles, said, referring to Bush, "I think it's wonderful. He belongs to our country club. We're thrilled he's going to be on the ticket with Reagan. I wish he could have been number one but this is good because in four years, he can be president and I think he will be."

The Reagans and Bushes dined on crab meat salad, fruit salad and a mousse, while neighbors fed the senior staff aides of both candidates.

After the rally, Reagan flew on to Los Angeles, where he will spend most of next week, while Bush stayed overnight in Houston. He will fly to Maine on Sunday.

The Reagans were in a happy mood on the plane. Nancy bowled an orange down the aisle as the plane took off. Her husband, repeating a line he has used many, many times during the primaries, said he was "cautiously optimistic" about the general election campaign against Carter.

When the Reagans arrived in Los Angeles they were greeted by a celebrity welcoming committee that included Hugh O'Brian and Bob Stack.

Reagan said he hoped that his campaign would have a quarter-million volunteers in November and then advised his small audience to do what he was doing for the weekend -- go home.