AMHERST, N.H. -- Vice President Bush, fresh from crucifixion in the corn fields, strode into the gymnasium, and the Amherst Middle School brass band struck up the triumphant "Hallelujah Chorus." It was, unintentionally, the cruelest reminder that the former front-runner -- swamped by Sen. Robert J. Dole and bested by Pat Robertson, is desperately in need of resurrection.
Bush is all stiff upper lip in New Hampshire. His code steadies him as he sees it all slipping away. He politely congratulates his rivals. He makes himself smile.
"Remember," he told the friendly Amherst crowd, "Denver got 10 points in the first quarter" -- a Super Bowl analogy meant to suggest that Dole, in Iowa, got all that is coming to him.
The erstwhile scrapper, who yelled at CBS anchorman Dan Rather and needled Dole, is gone. The wincing martyr of old is back. He no more mentions Dole than he utters the word "Iowa."
His one comfort -- and it is as cold as the leftover baked beans that Yankees used to serve on Sunday mornings -- is that his shaken fans talk more about Robertson's surprise second place than Dole's virtual 2-to-1 victory over Bush.
"After what happened last night, I thought it was more important than ever to come out tonight," said Amherst stockbroker Richard Verrochi, who was wearing a handsome camel's hair coat and carrying his sleeping one-month-old daughter, Kate. "I was disturbed about Robertson's showing -- the cloth and politics don't mix."
In his despair, Bush has gone back to his roots, the nice people of the Republican Party, the kind who live here in colonial or Victorian mansions and send their children to the right schools. They are the Republicans who yearn for peace in the world and moderation in their party, those for whom President Reagan was an acquired taste. "I am one of you," Bush says to them, recalling his New England ties and stealing one of Dole's most effective Iowa lines.
Dole, appearing before the New Hampshire Legislature, was boldly trying to pry Reagan's coattails from Bush's frantic clutch.
In the ancient chamber, Dole, who runs behind Bush in polls here, sounded more like Reagan than Reagan. In an arrant pitch for New Hampshire's hawks, he promised to test, develop and deploy SDI -- hang the cost -- and challenged Americans to join him in giving private funds to the Nicaraguan contras.
In a subsequent appearance at the Chubb Life Insurance Co., Dole was much more himself, talking reasonably about domestic concerns and how things get done in Washington. He promised to negotiate with Congress.
By contrast, Bush, very much the dove, promised negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev about more arms reductions. He took a veiled poke at Dole, who dawdled in accepting the INF Treaty: "I stood with the president from the first . . . . I didn't have to wait around and see which way the wind was blowing."
In Amherst, Bush spoke wistfully of being "an education president," with no hint of restoring the savage Reagan-era cuts; of being "an ethics president," who would "attract people who come to Washington to serve and not to profit." He dares not go so far as to say he would replace Edwin Meese III, now before another grand jury, as attorney general.
He can give no details without offending Reagan or the conservative Republicans who automatically embraced him because, as one woman in Hudson said, "Bush's only policy will probably be to continue the Reagan revolution."
He has to be wary in citing his foreign policy sophistication -- that's a swamp, too. If he's so savvy, how come he went along on arms to the ayatollah?
Loyalists dismiss the Iran-contra scandal as "history" or "overplayed by the press," but Bush knows it is sand in the shoes. It seems to be the principal reason for a large number of undecideds. Said Randy Heath, a luggage maker from Hudson, "I'd like somebody halfway between Dole and Bush. My only reservation with Bush is the wimp factor and, yes, Iran-contra. Dole is tough, but I think he lacks finesse."
No Granite Stater worth his salt would admit that upstart Iowa, a small, plain state somewhere out there beyond the hills, would have any effect on his or her decision. It is political flummery, they say, a vulgar grab at New Hampshire's ordained primacy in choosing presidents.
"The primary in New Hampshire is a serious thing," said Ruth Griffin, a member of the New Hampshire Governor's Council and a Bush activist. Bush devoutly hopes she is right.
His campaign has become a search for identity. A New Englander now, he'll become, if he survives, a Texan. The bell tolled for him in Iowa, and he's got to decide in the next few days who he is and what he stands for.