CLIVE, IOWA, OCT. 29 -- In this little corner of the world, Vice President Bush hit a home run at the first Republican presidential debate of the 1988 campaign.

He came across as calm, steady, seasoned, comfortable with himself, properly loyal to his boss, and -- in a word that doesn't often creep into the same sentence with his name -- strong.

"I'd feel comfortable being in the same foxhole with George Bush," Don Langford, 53, a farmer, mused moments after watching the two-hour debate on television Wednesday night with a group of neighbors.

"The thing that impressed me the most was right off when he said, 'After seven years of loyalty, why would I criticize Reagan now?' " said Carol Wise, 40, who works at a local farm museum. "That gave me a feeling of strength in the man -- that he's willing to stand by what he's already committed to."

"He was very stable and steady, yet with enough wit to return the fire of the others," agreed Wilma Hall, 48, a homemaker.

The three were among a group of 15 Dallas County Republicans, nearly all of whom are undecided on a candidate, unscientifically chosen by The Washington Post to watch the debate and comment.

Bush got the best reviews from this group, followed by Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), whose buoyancy and optimism struck a welcome chord in a state that, though now beginning to recover, endured a harsh stretch of farm failures and land-value loss in the mid-1980s.

On the minus side: The aggressive style of former Delaware governor Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV and his proposal to wipe out farm subsidies were unpopular with several viewers who had started the evening intrigued with him and curious to learn more. "He did better as an unknown," said Rod Davis, 46, an accountant. Former secretary of state Alexander M. Haig Jr.'s tightly wound demeanor unnerved several in the group. "I fear him on the military end," said Shirley Kiefer, 53, a teacher. And former television evangelist Marion G. (Pat) Robertson's focus on social issues confirmed the worst suspicions of these mainstream Republicans. "I know the kind of people who follow Pat Robertson, and the word compromise isn't in their vocabulary," said Sam Wise, 42, a farmer.

Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), who had a slight lead over Bush in the most recent Iowa poll by The Des Moines Register, drew a mixed response, with several complimenting him for his legislative and problem-solving skills, but others left to wonder what he stands for.

Those who participated in the Post group live about a half-hour west of Des Moines in Dallas County, a mix of small towns, big farms and creeping exurbia that makes it a fairly accurate microcosm of the state. It's a county where Republican Party regulars have tangled in recent years with an influx of newcomers from evangelical churches, and the scars are still fresh. Bush was the top vote-getter in the Dallas County caucuses in 1980 when he first ran for president, just as he was throughout Iowa.

The Post group was too small to be a scientific sampling, but with the one major exception of its members' view of Robertson, their reactions closely resembled views registered in a separate, broader telephone survey taken the night of the GOP debate by SRI Research Center Inc., a Nebraska marketing company.

That survey of 400 Republicans in Iowa, New Hampshire and the southern "Super Tuesday" states found that Bush was judged to have "won" by 34 percent of the viewers and was trailed by Robertson at 15 percent; Kemp and Dole, both 14 percent; don't know, 8 percent, and du Pont and Haig, both 6 percent.

In the Dallas County group, Bush won most of his plaudits for his loyalty and support of the proposed intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) treaty.

When Bush described the treaty as something "that's good for my grandchildren and the rest of the world," there were approving nods around the room. "It amazes me that five of the six are saying it {the INF} is a bad idea," Chet Randolph, 62, a TV host and agriculturist, said afterward. "How many missiles do we need?"

Bush's refusal to distance himself from Reagan produced a lively -- but lopsided -- debate. "He's asking us to decide whether we want to support him, and we have a right to know whether he agreed or disagreed with policies of the Reagan administration," said Steve Eckley, 30, an attorney. "I was disappointed that he didn't get into that."

"Don't you think it would be political suicide for the party for the vice president to come out and criticize the president?" responded Lyle Smith, 57, a farmer and retired postmaster.

Others agreed that it's no easy thing to wear two hats -- that of candidate and second banana -- and that Bush juggled them adroitly. By contrast, Haig's claim that he had privately lobbied against an INF-type treaty while he served in the administration was not well-received. "Maybe Bush showed a lot more character sticking with something he was a party to than other people did backing off something they were a party to," said S.C. Burger, 74, a retired accountant.

Haig also sparked bad reactions for what several saw as an overdeveloped sense of independence. "What he said about too many politicians listening to the polls may be right," said Dick Kiefer, 54. "But you get the impression he'd just turn a deaf ear on the whole country." Rod Davis agreed: "You can't lead if you have no followers."

The tenor of the group's response to Kemp was summed up by Sam Wise: "I liked his positive attitude. I agree with him. There isn't any problem we can't solve. Still, I don't think he's quite ready to be president. I'm not sure going from pro football right to the Congress gives you enough of a global view."

Dole drew applause from Eckley, the lawyer, for a willingness to deal "realistically" with budget deficits. "He didn't fence himself in, like the others did," Eckley said. But Wise was not impressed: "He talked in political cliches. He said very little of substance. He's been in the Senate a long time. He knows how to work that arena, but I'm not sure he's a leader of the country."

Du Pont was criticized for not offering an alternative to the $26 billion in farm subsides he proposed to terminate. "Is he just going to put 2 million farmers to the wall?" asked Smith. He also was criticized for seeming a bit half-cocked. "He's good at putting his finger on problems, but I'm not sure he picked things he has a real good knowledge of," said Wilma Hall.

Robertson had a tough time with the group, less because of what he said than because of fresh memories of the 1986 Dallas County GOP convention, where evangelicals turned out in big enough numbers to write a conservative platform on abortion and other social issues.

"Those people don't care who they step on," said Wise. "If they write the platform for the whole party, we'll never win an election."