CODY, WYO., JAN. 26 -- Vice President Bush, reveling in a wave of new attention following his heated interview with CBS News anchorman Dan Rather, seized today on the confrontation to demonstrate that he is ready for "combat" with his adversaries.

The intense Republican political maneuvering occurred amid a new round of confusion over one aspect of Bush's role in the Iran-contra affair: whether he had to have been aware that senior Cabinet members opposed the arms-for-hostages deal because of his attendance at a key meeting on the issue. President Reagan said today that Bush was not at the meeting when strong objections were made, despite extensive previous evidence that Bush was.

On the campaign trail, Bush steered clear of attacks on Rather and acknowledged he had known the night before the Monday night confrontation that "some of it was going to be about" the Iran-contra affair. But he said he did not know in advance about the six-minute report narrated by Rather on the role of Bush and his aides in the scandal until he saw a "great big monitor sitting there" in his Senate office. "That gave me a hint," Bush said. The taped report, which was broadcast first and pointed out conflicting statements by Bush and his staff, triggered the vice president's anger at Rather, an aide said.

Bush was exuberant as he campaigned across Wyoming today, saying to applause from his audiences, "I need combat pay for last night, I'll tell you!" Barbara Bush told reporters, "We loved it." Crowds held up placards such as "Dan Rather Is a Democrat" and "We'd Rather Be for Bush," and Bush political aides said they were thrilled by the response less than two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, where Bush is trailing Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) in the polls.

In Des Moines, Bush Iowa campaign strategist Rich Bond said, "Dan Rather tried to bully the vice president. I don't think it can possibly hurt {Bush} in Iowa . . . . " George Wittgraf, Bush's Iowa chairman, depicted the interview as "a shaping event" that was moving some undecided voters into Bush's column and was energizing supporters who have seen one poll after another in the state indicating Dole's lead has been growing.

At the White House, Reagan, answering shouted questions at a picture session, said for the first time that Bush was not present at a White House meeting at which Secretary of State George P. Shultz and then-Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger voiced strong objections to the Iran arms sales. "No he wasn't," Reagan said. "He was not present."

Bush suggested in the Rather interview that he may not have been present at the meeting on Jan. 7, 1986, but then modified his answer to say that he could not recall. Bush has repeatedly said he did not hear the Shultz and Weinberger objections.

A well-informed source has told The Washington Post that there were two meetings that day. The first, larger meeting was in the White House Situation Room; the second upstairs in the Oval Office. The source said Bush attended both meetings.

Different sets of White House records are in conflict on who attended and when they arrived. However, the source said notes kept by Kathy Osborne, the president's personal secretary, record the vice president's attendance. The source said Bush may have joined the Oval Office meeting late.

The source said Reagan has privately recalled this week that Shultz was sitting in the chair where Bush usually sits during the key meeting. Shultz said today on CBS's "This Morning" that he recalled Bush had attended the meeting.

Speaking to a high school chemistry class in Cheyenne, Bush defended his firey approach to the Rather interview, saying "It's important you defend your principles. That's what I was trying to do."

It was the second time in recent weeks that Bush has aggressively challenged the news media on coverage of the Iran-contra affair. On Jan. 8 he criticized The Des Moines Register during a televised Iowa debate.

Before the Rather interview, Bush conferred in his Senate office with Roger Ailes, a media consultant who has advised Bush before recent campaign debates and television appearances, and Craig L. Fuller, Bush's chief of staff. Fuller said Bush's reactions were his own, touched off by the taped report. "It was pure Bush," Fuller said.

Although he reportedly had a few bitter words about Rather after the live broadcast Monday night, the vice president took the high road today.

"You know, it's tension city when you're in there," he said. "I have no hard feelings. I did what I know is right. I don't want a big running fight with Dan Rather or anyone else."

"He's doing his job and I'm doing mine," Bush said of Rather, adding that an apology from Rather was not called for.

The vice president, clearly pleased with the attention he had received, said the confrontation had provoked "amazing interest around the country" with sympathetic telephone calls to his campaign offices and to the White House.

Dole, the vice president's chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination, said the Rather interview was another indication that the Iran-contra issue would not die if Bush becomes the nominee. Campaigning in New Hampshire, Dole minimized the direct political affect. "I don't think people are going to judge a person on a four- or five-minute segment on television," he said.

Asked if Bush had demonstrated his aggressiveness through the interview, Dole quipped, "I don't think one pebble makes a beach." Dole officials suggested that the interview, in the end, would hurt the vice president because it raises, according to press secretary Mari Maseng, his "most vulnerable issue," the Iran scandal.

Bush told Rather on Monday night that the only thing he was "hiding" about the Iran-contra affair was his advice to Reagan, and the president endorsed this approach for the first time today. At a White House photo session, Reagan said Bush "has been exactly right" because revealing his advice "would set a precedent with regard to private conversation between presidents and vice presidents, and I don't think we have a right to do that."

However, last March Reagan answered "No" when asked if Bush had objected to the Iran arms deals.

According to the latest Washington Post-ABC News Poll, a clear majority of American voters say Bush is not telling the truth about the Iran-contra affair, but the issue has had negligible impact on his support among Republican voters.

The survey disclosed that 57 percent of all registered voters said Bush was not telling the truth about his role in the arms-for-hostages deal, while 37 percent said he was. Six percent had no opinion. A majority of Republicans -- 56 percent -- said Bush was being truthful, while 23 percent of all Democrats agree.

But fewer than one out of three registered voters said Bush's role in the Iran-contra affair would make them less likely to vote for Bush. About three in five said it would make little difference, and 5 percent said Bush's role in Iran-contra has made them more likely to vote for him.

In Iowa, the major state where Bush is in significant need of a boost, his campaign appeared jubilant, and the Dole campaign worked hard to counter any advantage. CBS stations across the state were reporting pro-Bush, anti-Rather sentiment of varying degrees, and Bush operatives said the outpouring to his campaign was overwhelming. Said Bush strategist Bond, "I've never seen anything like this before, this many unsolicited calls, in any campaign I've been in."

But the Dole people dismissed the event as a one-day wonder. "There's a short-term benefit in standing up to the press, but in the long-term, it raises the question of Bush's role in Iran-contra," said Steve Roberts, a Dole supporter. "It won't change many caucus votes."

State party leaders said they believed the main impact would be to fire up Bush workers. One of them suggested that Dole workers were furiously calling television stations and elsewhere to register support for Rather in order to offset the impression of a Bush coup.

Said Ronda Menke, executive party director, "The Dole people were on the move trying to offset the favorable reaction to Bush," she said, saying anti-Bush calls to state headquarters seemed to reflect that strategy.

Staff writers James R. Dickenson, Lloyd Grove, Paul Taylor and Gwen Ifill contributed to this report.