Tens of millions of Americans got a rare chance to size up Vice President George Bush performing under pressure Thursday night in his televised debate with his Democratic opponent, Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro (D-N.Y.).

But only a handful of people witnessed a second baptism by fire that revealed another side of the deputy leader of the free world less than 24 hours later.

On Friday, a buoyant Bush boasted to an official of the International Longshoreman's Association that he had "tried to kick a little ass" in the contest with Ferraro.

It was a comment that went down famously along the docks of Elizabeth, N.J., where about 2,000 laborers in shirt sleeves were cheering Bush and inveigh- ing against "the broad" he had debated.

But a few hundred miles and two hours later, in Birmingham, Ala., Bush faced the challenge of explaining his choice of words, which had been recorded by a television crew's boom microphone.

Here is a transcript of Bush defending his language at a news conference.

Q: Did you say you kicked Geraldine Ferraro's ass last night?

Bush: No, I didn't say that.

Q: What did you say?

A: I leaned over to a guy who gave me his assessment of the debate, and I will have to confess I whispered in his ear -- I used an old Texas football expression -- and you just listen to the television and hear what it was, but it's not what you said. And I don't want to repeat it here.

Q: Well what was it?

A: Well, just look at the wires and listen to whoever had it. They'll have it accurately. They'll have it accurately. I did not say -- Next question?

Q: Mr. Bush, if I may say so, I did hear the tape, and that's what it sounded like to me.

A: Well, I didn't say "her." That's the difference. Laughs Anybody familiar with athletics?

Q: Vice President Bush, did you say: "I kicked a little ass last night"?

A: No, I didn't use "a little." Leave out the word, little. You're getting closer. Who has the tape? Who was overhearing what I said to this guy? It's an old expression, and I stand behind it. That's the way I talk, so get it accurate. Laughs.

Q: Would you share it with us, Mr. Vice President, so we can get it accurate?

A: Well, why don't you get an accurate tape, because I don't want to repeat it here. I was whispering in a guy's ear.

Q: Why don't you want to repeat it?

A: Well, I just don't like to do it in public. I was telling this guy in his ear.

Q: Is it okay in New Jersey, but not in Alabama? Is that what you're saying?

A: No, that's not what I'm saying.

At this point, Bush's press secretary, Peter Teeley, who was fending off a controversy of his own over his remark the previous day that Ferraro was "too bitchy," walked up to the podium to try to shield Bush from further questions. The vice president gestured him away.

Bush to Teeley: I can handle this.

Bush to reporters: Any other questions?

A Birmingham reporter rose, saying: "I'd like to ask something important," and queried Bush on steel-import policy. Bush prefaced his answer with: "Thank you. Whew. Are you with the national press?"

The questioning then returned to Bush's New Jersey remark.

Q: This has been a week in which your wife has apologized to Ms. Ferraro for not wanting to call her a witch. Your press secretary said that Ms. Ferraro was too bitchy. And now today you made whatever reference you won't repeat again. Do you think you owe Ms. Ferraro an apology from this campaign?

A: No, but Barbara Bush did call her and apologize. But not for the expression I used. Anybody who's ever been involved in athletics -- particularly Texas athletics -- knows what I said . . . . It was a way of expressing victory, and she would understand that. She's a good competitor.

Q: Your quote, correct me if I'm wrong, is: "I kicked ass last night."

A: Very close -- I think that's it.

Q: But that doesn't have to do with athletics, that has to do with politics.

A: Well, it's an athletic expression. I stand behind it; I use it all the time. My kids use it. Everybody who competes in sports uses it. I just don't like to use it in public. I was not talking in public, but now I guess I am. You size it up just exactly right. No more questions on this subject.

Q: Is it going to hurt your campaign?

A: No, it's going to help. Laughs Everybody understands exactly what I was saying.

Q: I have one follow-up.

A: Nope, not any more on this subject.

Q: Will your mother be upset?

A: Just a minute, another entry here! Bush often refers to his 84-year-old mother, Dorothy, as "the boss of my family." He had said before the debate that he hoped she would not call him afterward and complain that he had been "rude." Yes, she will probably be disappointed in her son. But not my kids. It's a generational thing.