Vice President Bush has produced concern among his advisers and provided ammunition to his political foes by his persistent defense of the U.S. oil industry on a trip to Arab nations that was supposed to focus on regional security issues, administration officials and Republican leaders said yesterday.
A White House official referred to the vice president as "poor George" and said his comments last week that the oil-price collapse had gone too far had proved a troublesome political problem from which Bush has been unable to extricate himself.
"It's a gaffe," the official said. "I presume there will be reruns of it in New Hampshire. George is a Texas, pro-oil guy, but that is not administration policy."
President Reagan was said by his advisers to be supportive of Bush and to have told one of them that the vice president's remarks were "misinterpreted" by the news media. But a senior adviser said that Reagan intended to reiterate "his very firm commitments to free market forces and the price of oil" if the issue is raised by reporters at his news conference tonight.
Meanwhile, Bush continued during his eight-day trip to Arab oil-producing states to contend that plummeting petroleum prices pose a problem for the U.S. oil industry and to defend his earlier remarks on the issue, Washington Post staff writer David B. Ottaway reported from Bahrain.
At a news conference in the guest palace of a Bahrain sheik, Bush said that "I don't know that I'm defending the U.S. oil industry. What I'm doing is defending a position that I feel very, very strongly . . . . Whether that's a help politically or whether it proves a detriment politically I couldn't care less."
Bush said he didn't "see any political fallout one way or the other" from his remarks.
However, in Michigan yesterday -- site of the the first Republican caucus in the nation in 1988 -- an editorial in the Detroit News was headlined "Bush to Michigan: Drop Dead." It called the vice president "J.R. Bush" and accused him of going on a foreign mission to plead the interests of the domestic oil industry.
And spokesmen for Bush's likely rivals for the GOP presidential nomination were gleefully concocting 30-second television spots that they said will air in the snows of oil-consuming Iowa and New Hampshire in early 1988.
"I couldn't believe it when it happened," said David Keene, a onetime adviser to Bush who is now a political consultant to Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.). "Given Bush's background, the last thing he needs to be doing is carrying water for the oil industry and the international banks . . . . It was as if his whole resume was talking."
Privately, many of the Bush supporters acknowledged that he had committed a political blunder and questioned why he had not forseen the fallout of coming to the defense of an industry that, even in its current distress, remains a object of enmity in most regions of the country.
"You have got to figure George was getting banged by all his oil friends, particularly the drillers, who have been hurt the most," said one prominent Bush supporter in Congress, who asked not to be identified. "But you figure he's got those guys anyway. So why do it?"
Some Republicans favorable to Bush said that his comments about the plight of the domestic oil industry reflected the vice president's own thinking and were not part of a political strategy. He did not discuss the issue with his advisers in advance of the news conference where he said he would tell the Saudi Arabians that "they need to be aware of the dire straits" confronting the U.S. oil industry because of the steep price decline.
"There was no political calculation involved," said Bill Phillips, executive director of the Fund for America's Future, the Bush political action committee (PAC). "To him this is a matter of principle, not politics. The vice president spoke from the heart." The trip was originally conceived to showcase Bush as statesman at a time when Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), regarded as his principal rival for the 1988 Republican nomination for president, had just completed a high-profile trip to Europe. The Bush staff thought that the trip would highlight regional security issues and did not expect the oil issue to be prominent.
This changed after Bush's comments last week, but the vice president was not deterred by a White House statement reiterating that the administration does not intend to interfere with the movement of world oil prices.
White House officials tried to minimize the differences yesterday, following Reagan's private comment that Bush had been misinterpreted and a telephone conversation between White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan and Bush's chief aide, Craig L. Fuller.
An aide traveling with Bush said there had been no request from the White House "to alter the vice president's agenda," Ottaway reported.
The flap began at a pretrip news conference last Tuesday at which Bush said it was "essential that we talk about stability [of oil prices] and that we not just have a continued free-fall, like a parachutist jumping out without a parachute."
While many economists agreed with that proposition, political strategists said that Bush's business background as the cofounder of an oil-drilling firm, and his philosophic adherence to the principle of a free market made him vulnerable to the charge of being a special-interest pleader.
"Most people are confused by the whole thing," said former New Hampshire governor Hugh Gregg, a leading Bush supporter in that state. "It's good ammunition for somebody against us, I suppose, because obviously we're interested in low oil prices here. But I'm sure there's a good explanation."
Peter Secchia, co-chairman of Bush's PAC in Michigan, played down the potential damage. "I see this as a 24-hour problem," he said. "Do you really think the White House would pay him to fly to the Middle East to help Texas oilmen? The guy is too straight for that."