For four years, said Vic Gold, political adviser to Vice President Bush, "People have been coming up to me and saying: 'I don't like Reagan, but I like your man Bush.' And I would say back to them: 'Then you don't like my man Bush, because he's exactly where Ronald Reagan is.' "
For Bush, whose political identity for years has been what Gold calls a "happy blur," the 1984 campaign became an unprecedented opportunity to present himself to the American public -- a warm-up for his expected 1988 presidential bid.
But while the campaign has made Bush the front-runner for the GOP nomination in 1988, according to a wide range of Republicans, it also has left him, at 60, more blurred than before.
Bush's aides insist that the vice president's performance will help make him president in 1988 because it won him the indebtedness of the party and the president, along with new respect from skeptical conservatives.
But some of his longtime friends and supporters said, apparently with some anguish, they believe he has badly diminished himself. GOP media consultant John Deardourff said "all the moderation has been squeezed out of George," leaving him in a "no man's land" in the approaching battle between conservatives and moderates for control of the post-Reagan GOP.
Whatever the merits, there is no doubt that Bush has wrapped himself throughout the campaign in the image of President Reagan, emerging as a self-described "cheerleader" for the man he fought fiercely for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination.
Pounding his fists and waving his arms, Bush has stumped from coast to coast, waxing effervescent about "our marvelous president," who has made America "No. 1 again" and "all green lights and blue skies." Yesterday, in Parsippany, N.J., he said, "We're No. 1, and there's a lot of idiots who don't know that." He has renounced past differences with Reagan on abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, so embracing his No. 2 role that he brought in football coaches, such as the legendary Woody Hayes, to introduce him at rallies as a consummate "team player."
Even Bush's archrival, conservative fund-raiser Richard A. Viguerie, proclaimed in bemusement after the vice-presidential debate: "He played Reagan better than Reagan did! He talks like Reagan! He walks like Reagan! He stands tall like Reagan! He has him down cold!"
"I'm for Mr. Reagan -- blindly," Bush, grinning broadly, told reporters this week.
And political columnists, generally respectful of Bush for most of his extensive government career, have begun treating him as a caricature. The comic strip "Doonesbury" portrayed him as having placed his "political manhood in a blind trust," and conservative columnist George Will wrote: "He has turned the 1984 election into the first primary of 1988 and, although unopposed, he has lost it."
Bush's chief problem in 1980, according to strategists who worked for and against him, was that he lacked a coherent vision. Next to Reagan's message of tax cuts and defense buildups, Bush said only that he was "up for the 80s," the candidate with "big Mo" (momentum) and "a president we won't have to train," a reference to Bush's long resume of government service from Congress to foreign policy-making and GOP activism.
It is a problem that he has been unable to overcome in the role of "team player" and one alluded to even by Bush's most ardent supporter -- his wife, Barbara -- in an interview on a recent campaign swing. Asked if Bush as president could have ushered in the era of upbeat, patriotic feelings that he credits to Reagan's leadership, Barbara Bush was silent for several seconds, then responded:
"Probably not, to be absolutely honest, and I bet George would tell you the same thing . . . . I don't know whether it's because George was so close in -- he'd been in Congress, and he'd been in government. But I can't think of one other person in America who could have gone up to the Hill and had the response he Reagan did in the first two years. George tells me he's learned a great deal from him, that he does not get off focus, he keeps his eye on the target."
Throughout the campaign, Bush assiduously sidestepped questions about his personal stands on issues. He lashed out at reporters as "a pack" for asking about differences between the Bush of 1980 and 1984 on the high-voltage issues of abortion and the ERA.
When he toured a nonunion furniture factory in North Carolina and was asked about his attitude toward organized labor, he responded: "I believe in unions. I believe in nonunions."
In the most literal sense, it is unclear where he really comes from.
Born in Connecticut, he votes in Houston, lives in Washington, claims Maine as his principal residence for tax purposes and says at many campaign stops: "I'm from a southern state. I'm from Texas."
It was in Houston that Bush, son of a senator from Connecticut, went into business in 1948 and was first elected to political office -- two terms in the House in 1966 and 1968. He was defeated when he ran for the Senate in 1970.
"I'm legally and emotionally entitled to be what I want to be," Bush said when asked why he calls himself a Texan. "That's what I want to be, and that's what I am."
When he first ran for office in Texas, Bush dodged questions about whether he was a moderate or a conservative by asserting: "Labels are for cans, not for people."
But when he ran for president against Reagan in the Republican primaries in 1980, he labeled himself a "moderate conservative." And at the Republican convention in Dallas this year, seeking reelection as Reagan's vice president, he called himself "a conservative, but . . . not a nut about it," a remark that incensed the GOP's right wing.
As a campaigner, he has also been a jumble of images. His aides told reporters that he was "too polite" to play the traditional vice-presidential role of "hatchet man" and thus would travel the "high road." After an impromptu roadside stop in September in rural Kentucky, where he shook hands with elementary school children who had waved to him, Bush said he enjoyed that encounter far more than the trading of charges.
Yet, Bush repeatedly tarred Democratic nominee Walter F. Mondale with charges that were inaccurate. He claimed that Mondale plans "drastic cuts" in the defense budget (Mondale supports a 4 percent increase), would "do away with the modernization of our bomber program" (Mondale supports the modern Stealth bomber), calls the Marxist leaders of Nicaragua "liberals" (Mondale calls them "leftists" and "totalitarians") and believes that U.S. servicemen "died in shame" in Lebanon (Mondale said Reagan's policies there "humiliated" the United States.).
Before large audiences, he often has seemed to be trying out a persona that isn't quite natural. When he went on the attack, his voice frequently cracked and his fist-pounding and arm-waving became so feverish that a listener at the prestigious Commonwealth Club in San Francisco whispered to a reporter: "Should we send some Valium up to the podium?"
Sometimes he has played the jock, boasting that he had "tried to kick a little ass" in his debate with Democratic vice-presidential nominee Geraldine A. Ferraro. Other times, he has sounded genteel, almost prim -- describing the Soviets as "tough as horseradish" and proclaiming after a Denver speech: "Zippity doo dah. Now it's off to the races."
His close friends said with apparent consternation that the Bush of the campaign trail is not the Bush they know.
"It's as if there's a veil over what is a very sterling person who has such depth of experience and such dedication to serve his country," said Charles Schmidt, a Boston businessman who has been a devoted friend and supporter since hearing Bush address a small group of paper company executives in 1979.
Yet, Bush has been a master of small groups and casual forums. He has conducted about 300 one-on-one interviews with local reporters, treating them with the grace accorded foreign dignitaries, using questions as openings for his standard plugs for Reagan's economic and defense policies, always emerging with glowing local coverage.
He milked a cow in Minnesota, descended into a coal mine in downstate Illinois, drove a cotton harvester in California. And each time, he earned chits from the local GOP organization and good will from such voters as cotton farmer Don Johnston of Bakersfield, Calif., who said: "If all else fails, he can come to Kern County and be a cotton picker."
Bush has refused to discuss his plans for 1988 before the election, but aides have made clear that he plans another presidential bid. They say that the frustrations of 1984 will fade by then and that Bush will be remembered mainly as a faithful Reaganite who won a high-stakes debate with Ferraro, the first woman on a major party's ticket, at a time when the president was smarting over his loss of the first debate with Mondale.
Bush blamed his negative media coverage on Reagan critics, who thought they could "get" the president by "getting" Bush. But, he said, "I couldn't do what Mr. Mondale has done -- cut and run from Jimmy Carter . . . . Somewhere along the line character gets into this."
According to Gold, "Ronald Reagan has defined the Republican Party for the next 20 years. He is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt of our party. George Bush will be in the best position to argue that he is the one to continue the Reagan vision."
Given that, a GOP consultant who worked with Bush for several years and calls him a good friend was asked what could deny him the nomination.
"Himself," the consultant answered. "George Bush has got to figure out who George Bush is. The party -- the entire country -- is heading for an upheaval after Reagan. If George devotes himself to abject loyalty, with each passing day he becomes more out of step."