In the middle of Vice President Bush's brief acceptance speech Tuesday night, as he extolled President Reagan's vision for the American future, he was interrupted by a supporter's raspy cry of "Bush in '88!" The crowd went wild.
The vice president tried to keep talking -- something about "a long, hard-fought campaign" -- but the 1,000 men and women assembled at the elegant Westin Galleria Hotel ballroom drowned him out with cheers, hoisting placards proclaiming "Reagan in '84; Bush in '88 and '92," "Kick Ass George" and "Bush Is Back."
Bush gave no hint of noticing the "Bush in '88" cries, and seemed assiduously to ignore them. He waited for his audience to calm down, then proceeded with an eloquent call for unity of Republicans and Democrats, shook a few hundred hands and headed back to his hotel to get ready to return to Washington and four more years as vice president.
When he arrived at the capital, where pundits already were sizing up his potential to succeed Reagan, the man who campaigned 329 days for the 1980 presidential nomination and who is the acknowledged front-runner for 1988 said he is not sure he will try again. Aides said privately they believe that Bush suffered so many "abrasions" from criticism in this campaign that he is wary of running again.
"I've really not decided whether I'm going to do it or not, and I have the luxury of plenty of time to make up my mind," Bush said at a news conference just after landing at Andrews Air Force Base. "I frankly think the American people are sick and dead-tired as of today of presidential politics . . . . I fit that description as being a little tired of it."
Displaying the same loyalty to Reagan that won him wide praise and severe criticism throughout the campaign, Bush appeared satisfied for now with the ringing vote of confidence and gratitude the president gave him in declaring victory the night before. Reagan called Bush the best vice president he knew of.
"When the president of the United States said what he said last night," he told reporters at a news conference, "that said to me: Look, go on. Do your job. Do your job the best you can and give the support to the president that you want to and feel inclined to in your heart. Everything else sorts out down the line. Not for now, though."
But while Bush said he wanted to use the next four years to "make a contribution to bringing this country together," the battle for succession to Reagan within the GOP appeared likely to become at least as distracting as the "Bush in '88" cry that interrupted him on Tuesday night.
Even before the polls closed Tuesday night, Reagan political adviser Lyn Nofziger, a Bush detractor until he joined the Reagan ticket in 1980, had gone on television and raised questions about Bush's 1988 prospects.
"George Bush is going to have to go out and win the presidency," Nofziger said. "Being vice president doesn't automatically guarantee you the nomination . There are an awful lot of Republicans who will want to challenge him."
Asked whether Bush's performance in the campaign as Reagan's self-described "cheerleader" had helped him, particularly with conservatives, Nofziger said, "I think he's probably helped himself -- a little."
What Bush gained from the campaign was a closer identification with Reagan than he had ever had, thanks to tens of thousands of miles of travel as the lead campaigner for the president, and for his advocacy of Reagan's foreign and domestic initiatives in the vice-presidential debate with Geraldine A. Ferraro, which polls showed him to have won in the eyes of voters.
He also built a network of contacts in Republican organizations throughout the country, campaigning for 69 congressional candidates and hosting dozens of fund-raisers in cities large and small.
For his loyalty, Bush was praised for the first time in his career by such conservatives as fund-raiser Richard Viguerie, who declared, "He played Reagan better than Reagan." The right wing of the party is considered a key to the 1988 nomination.
But Bush was also attacked severely for the first time in his career by a wide range of columnists -- and by the comic strip "Doonesbury" -- as well as by some moderate Republicans, who complained that he had forfeited his independence.
In addition, Bush emerged from the campaign with a reputation as an erratic candidate, extolling Reagan's America of peace and prosperity at one stop and lashing out angrily at reporters at the next for asking about his differences with Reagan in 1980 when they opposed each other for the presidential nomination.
"You guys are a pack," Bush told reporters when they pointed out that he had opposed Reagan's abortion position in 1980. " . . . Take it literally, figuratively, anywhere else. Put it down. Mark it down. Good, you got it. Elevate it. Elevate it. Elevate it."
Bush's aides insist that many of the problems will fade from public memory by 1988. They predict he will take an increasingly visible role in the second term, possibly in arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union.
Reagan's first thank-you in his acceptance speech Tuesday night went to Bush, whom he called "a partner this next term." It may have been symbolic of things to come that after their landslide, Reagan was happily ensconced far from Washington at his California ranch while Bush was spending the night at Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains. The two are to meet there over the weekend.
Bush appeared unusually at peace, even with the press, when he said he would have no announcement about his 1988 plans. He even mocked his past outbursts, saying after his news conference: "Get it straight now, take it down, and elevate this thing. You just don't know what you're talking about."
There was a scattering of applause from "the pack." Then the vice president boarded a Marine helicopter, and headed with his family toward Camp David.