Less than two weeks before his second-term inauguration, Vice President Bush said yesterday that he has taken preliminary steps to organize a 1988 presidential campaign, but has not committed himself to running.
Bush said he is "talking to a handful of very close friends to determine what I should do now to protect a decision way down into the future." He emphasized in an interview, however: "I haven't made any decisions at all."
But among Bush's close advisers, including his wife, Barbara, his candidacy in 1988 is considered to have "a certain amount of inevitability," in the words of Peter Teeley, Bush's press secretary. Bush, 60, was Reagan's chief challenger for the 1980 presidential nomination, and is the GOP front-runner for 1988.
The vice president acknowledged in the interview that he has discussed a 1988 race informally with Edward J. Rollins, director of the 1984 Reagan-Bush campaign, whose support Bush said he would be "flattered and honored" to have.
Rollins, who has called himself a "Bush man," has not committed himself to work for a candidate. The chief contenders for the nomination are expected to include Bush, Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.).
Meanwhile, former senator Nicholas Brady (R-N.J.) is seeking commitments for Bush from Republican leaders and strategists around the country, advisers to Bush said. Bush also said he may hire a few seasoned politicians for his staff, which has been markedly apolitical for the last four years and which he is reorganizing because of the planned departure of his chief of staff, Adm. Daniel J. Murphy.
"I wouldn't have a political staff per se, but I think, depending on what I decide, there could be some more political awareness," Bush said, acknowledging that he has been criticized for having so few politicians in his office.
Murphy and Teeley have announced plans to resign, but are expected to remain with Bush for several months.
Bush, who maintained unswerving loyalty to President Reagan during the campaign on issues large and small and often declined to voice his own views, emphasized that he will not switch positions if he runs. He also said he does not expect his role to change dramatically in the second term.
But he said that toward the end of this term if he decides to run he would move to articulate his own vision for the nation's future -- a task that former vice presidents Richard M. Nixon, Hubert H. Humphrey and Walter F. Mondale found daunting.
"I think you have to visibly portray your vision for the future and where you want to see the country go," Bush said. "That's way down the road," he continued, " . . . but I can see positing positions for the future that give people a sort of insight."
Bush said that his vision will deal only with the post-Reagan era and that he will remain loyal to all Reagan has done. Asked to preview that vision, he demurred: "That's beyond where I want to be . . . . I don't have to do that now."
Bush called the 1984 campaign, in which he faced Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro (D-N.Y.), the first female vice-presidential nominee on a major-party ticket, the most "personal and ugly" race he has run. He was lampooned by columnists across the political spectrum for his declarations of loyalty to Reagan, and repeatedly was accused of sexism toward Ferraro.
He said victory has assuaged his distress, however. Asked if he would seek a female running mate if he runs in 1988, the first vice president to be challenged by a woman said he hasn't considered it. He noted, however, that "I've said in the past that it would be very possible."