Right after a political debate, flying squads of paid propagandists burst into the press area to tell reporters who won. The George Bush-Geraldine Ferraro debate was no exception. The Bush people said he won. The Ferraro people insisted she did. It was a close call, but where it really mattered, the Bush people were right.

This is a conclusion open to argument. Bush, after all, started the debate like an overwound cuckoo clock -- popping off economic statistics and bad jokes ("Whine on, harvest moon") with equal abandon. He trivialized civil rights to mean something akin to neighborhood zoning and he proved he is not above using a cheap shot, as when he said Walter Mondale favored a repeal of tax indexing. Mondale does not.

Then, too, Bush was patenly insincere in his praise of Ronald Reagan. Anyone who has followed his career knows that he has his differences with the president. Theirs is a marriage of convenience, and not, as Bush would have it, a love match. Not since Jack Valenti confessed that he slept better because Lyndon Johnson was his president has one man poured so much honey over another -- and to the same effect. Like an overly rich dessert, it made you a little sick.

But that, for better or worse, is George Bush -- the consummate preppy. He is given to praising the prosaic, and when he talked about Reagan, he sounded like some wacky lady singing the praises of her dumb poodle. No one outside of an institution really thinks that Andrei Gromyko returned to the Kremlin singing the praises of Reagan's leadership. How do you say "golly" in Russian anyway?

But the burden of the vice presidency is to be an understudy. The job is nothing but anticipation -- having to step into the presidency on a moment's notice. This has happened to Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and, in a sense, Gerald Ford. You have to hit the ground running, and the toughest terrain of all is foreign policy. In this area, Ferraro just didn't have it.

And she showed it. She was tentative and hesitant when discussing either arms control or Central America. Earlier she chastised Bush for patronizing her, but she let him get away with murder on Central America. His statement that the human rights situation in El Salvador is far better than the one in Nicaragua is pure Reagan administration baloney, but Ferraro did not say a word in rebuttal. It seemed she lacked the information to argue with him -- even to suggest that he was overstating things a bit to say that El Salvador was "perfecting" its democracy.

In fact, except when the subject was terrorist bombings in Lebanon, Ferraro seemed to be telling you everything she knew -- knowledge that was the proverbial mile wide and inch deep. Her voice dropped and she loked down for notes she had written to herself.

This was particularly true when it came to arms control. It is a difficult area, studded with an alphabet soup of agreements, proposals and weapons -- SALT, START, ABM, MIRV. The subject is clearly beyond the ken of President Reagan, whose ignorance in this area is well documented. He thought, for instance, that missiles once launched from submarines could be recalled.

But Ferraro was not debating Reagan but Bush. And when it came to foreign policy, the vice president showed that years spent in Congress, as head of the CIA and as ambassador to China and the United Nations had provided him a grounding that Ferraro clearly lacked. And he knew it. His body language changed. He calmed down. Like Br'er Rabbit, he was thrown into his favorite briar patch.

There are many ways to judge a debate. You can figure out who had the most to lose. Or you can say, simply, that Ferraro won because she said noting that Mondale will have to spend days either defending or explaining. You can talk about poise, about who looked better and who managed to take control. You can wait until the pollsters weigh in with their numbers or simply count absurdities and penalize the debater with the most. When it comes to the latter, Bush was clearly the loser.

But if you looked at this debate to determine which one of the candidates is better qualified to immediately become president -- to walk into the Oval Office and pick up the ringing phone -- then George Bush won for the most basic of all reasons: on foreign policy, he's more qualified. After the debate, some of Ferraro's aides condeded her weakness on foreign policy but pointed out how much she has learned just in the past two months.

That's true. She's come a long way. But not far enough.