EXETER, N.H., JAN. 12 -- Vice President Bush said today he "absolutely" believes the Reagan administration was dealing with moderate elements in Iran in the secret arms sales, asserting "I think there still are" some moderates "and I think I know something about that."

Bush's response to questions from reporters appears to run counter to information presented to him in 1986 before the arms shipments became public. Amiram Nir, then a counterterrorism adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, told Bush in Jerusalem on July 29, 1986, that "we are dealing with the most radical elements" in Iran, according to a memo written by Craig L. Fuller, Bush's chief of staff.

"They can deliver . . . that's for sure. They were called yesterday and thanked and today more phone calls. This is good because we've learned they can deliver and the moderates can't," Nir said, according to Fuller's memo summarizing the conversation with Bush.

At another point, Nir noted that the "extremes are in contact with us."

Bush has been trying in recent days to answer persistent questions about his role in the Iran-contra affair, amid an intensifying battle for the Republican presidential nomination in which his chief rival, Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (Kan.), has urged Bush to make public his advice to President Reagan.

At the time the decision to sell arms to Tehran was made in 1985 and 1986, Iran was listed by the U.S. government as one of the nations supporting terrorism. Bush acknowledged today that at the time "I knew everybody that was on that list." In the same time period, Bush was chairman of an administration task force that said the United States would not make concessions to terrorists.

When asked today whether he believed there were moderates in Iran, Bush asked, "Moderates compared to what?" He quickly answered his own question, saying, "Moderates compared to Ayatollah {Ruhollah} Khomeini."

However, the congressional Iran-contra report said, "The arms sales did not lead to a moderation of Iranian policies. Moderates did not come forward, and Iran to this day sponsors actions directed against the United States in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere."

Bush again described the deal as having "two tracks," one to free American hostages being held in Lebanon and the other to "establish contacts with the moderates that I do happen to {think} still exist there." The two tracks, he said, got "blended" together, and "I don't think anyone ever suggested the weapons went to the people who were holding the hostages."

In response to a question, Bush said he recalled meeting with former national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane on his return from the failed mission to Tehran in May 1986. But when asked if trading arms for hostages was discussed on McFarlane's return, Bush said, "The question about arms for hostages has been answered over and over again. A deal that wasn't perceived to be arms for hostages turned out to be arms for hostages. The deal was not approved as that."

Nir talked with Bush in Jerusalem two months later about whether the United States should continue to deliver weapons to Iran without getting all the hostages out, the Fuller memo shows. The document describes an explicit link between the hostages and the weapons.

After failing to get all the hostages released in May, McFarlane briefed Reagan and Bush about his trip. A memo written by another participant records that McFarlane was frustrated by the Iranian officials he dealt with in Iran, complaining that the government there "lacks competence" and "the competents were decapitated."

Bush also said today that he believes the Iran-contra affair is not an issue in the campaign. "Most people I talk to and most polls I see show it is not an issue at all," he said.

The vice president said he did not know about the secret resupply network for the Nicaraguan contras. Bush, who was interviewed Monday by lawyers for independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, said he could not comment on the interview but added that it "went well." He said he was not a target of the probe. Asked if his staff members are, he replied, "The independent prosecutor would have no reason to believe they would be."