George Bush's favorite moment in the great debate Tuesday night was one most viewers didn't catch.
President Carter had just ridiculed Ronald Reagan's tax-cutting proposal, noting wryly that even Bush, Reagan's running mate, had once called it "voodoo economics." From his front-row seat in the debate hall, the former ambassador mentally cringed at his own primary campaign rhetoric.
"And Reagan looked down at me when Carter said this . . . and he winked," Bush said, as he replayed the scene in a recent interview. "It was a 'here we go again, George,' look, and it just put me totally at ease."
For Bush, Reagan's conspiratorial wink "was just right" and proof that the two men have developed a much friendlier relationship since their midnight marriage at the GOP convention last July. The political merger of the conservative ex-governor of California and the moderate former Texas congressman was never an affair of the heart, but they seem to be trying to make the best of an alliance that might end up in the White House.
During a hurried, last week of campaigning, Bush seemed pleased with the job he is doing for Reagan and more certain about having a meaningful voice in any Reagan administration.
Unless he gained Reagan's confidence, Bush joked at the start of the campaigning, he might be relegated as vice president to "going to funerals in Fiji." These days, the man who has crisscrossed the country praising Ronald Reagan and pounding Carter, says he feels he has earned Reagan's support.
"If he thinks I fit the description of a person who is supportive and on the team and yet willing to speak up when I differ with him, he'll listen," said Bush. "And I think he does think that."
At Reagan's instigation, according to Bush, the two speak on the telephone an average of two or three times a week. The GOP vice presidential candidate has been included in several meetings at Reagan's rented estate outside Washington. And he was on hand to cheer on Reagan at the debate in Cleveland.
Recalling the report of "bad chemistry" between them and post-convention stories that Reagan advisers doubted Bush's loyalty. Bush said that Reagan had made every effort to work with him.
"From the day this relationship began, he went the extra mile," he added. "He has done personal and thoughtful things to express his appreciation for what we're trying to do to help the campaign."
What Bush is trying to do is drum up support for the GOP ticket among the moderates and undecideds whose votes will be crucial to any victory next Tuesday.
This week, for instance, his chartered jet is touching down in 21 cities in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, Iowa, Florida, Louisiana and Connecticut. In these close or so-called "tossup" states, a total of 143 electoral votes hang in the balance.
Bush's role is to whip up anti-Carter sentiment and to reassure voters about Ronald Reagan. The message -- delivered in short, catchy phrases, his voice punching the air -- is the same:
Carter "has devastated the economy." Reagan is a decent, compassionate man, and the attempt to portray him as a reckless or a warmonger "is a smoke screen by a desperate president." There is no "malaise" in the country, "it's just a lack of leadership." In short, Reagan "offers hope while Carter has delivered despair."
Bush is banking on his campaign performance and on Reagan's reputation for delegating authority to ensure that he get some influential duties as vice president.
"He's reached out to others for ideas and he did not try to make every little decision about who is going to use the governor's tennis courts," Bush said in a reference to Carter's policing of access to the White House tennis courts.
And besides, Bush reasons, "I've got many shortcomings which I would rather not elaborate on or spell out for you. But getting along with people is not one of them."