MANCHESTER, N.H. -- New Hampshire, something of a stepmother state in presidential primaries, went madonna for George Bush.

The vice president limped over her border with Iowa's arrow still in his back. But the Granite State forgot to be flinty, for once. No, she took the wounded warrior in her lap and murmured, "There, there." It was as if Lady Macbeth had become a registered nurse.

Bush got back on his feet and became a truck-driving, burger-chomping, back-slapping New Englander. He was still a wretched candidate. At a Republican dinner-rally, he babbled on about female caribou, who, he said, have learned to love the Alaska pipeline and "have more babies than you can shake a stick at."

At the final debate, supposedly speaking from the heart, but reading from a card, Bush said he knows he doesn't speak well -- "on and on and on" is how he phrased it -- but he "believes" and "feels." It sounded almost like an apology, and not the greatest excuse for making him the leader of the western world, but New Hampshire Republicans looked on with misty-eyed approval.

They were apparently undone by his claim that he is one of them. He kept reminding them that he was born in Massachusetts and has a home in Maine -- as many of them, he said pointedly, know from having been invited there.

Robert Frost, the great Yankee poet, offers the best explanation:

"Home is the place where, when you have to go there,

"They have to take you in."

What made his victory unexpected, besides the treacherous polls, was the presence of a rival whom you might have thought was New Hampshire's cup of tea. Kansas Sen. Robert J. Dole is a laconic, direct, succinct sort who excels at the withering putdown and the sarcasm that pass for communication here. Dole is the kind you could take to your local gun club and trust to fit right in and not start nattering about the love life of the caribou.

But New Hampshire turned away from the black-haired stranger. Why? He talks about things they hold dear, like budgets and paying your bills and getting on with it. Well -- brace yourself, folks -- it seems that Dole is "mean." Meanness used to be regarded as a civic virtue in this state, which pushes the poor out the door and enjoys tricking reporters and pollsters.

Out-of-staters were baffled by this sudden concern for gentillesse. It was like hearing Cher, the navel-barer, accuse someone with a plunging neckline of being immodestly attired.

Anyway, Dole, after a week of wildly fluctuating polls, lost by nine points to the invalid -- and promptly lost his temper. When asked by Tom Brokaw in the obligatory post-returns interview whether he had a word for Bush, Dole snapped, "Stop lying about my record." Tsk, tsk, said Granite Staters.

Dole knew he was running against John Sununu, the governor of New Hampshire and Bush's state chairman. Sununu had at his command, in the form of government workers, a force of forced labor, which spread out the night before the primary and sowed the landscape with Bush signs.

More importantly, Dole found out that in running against Bush, at least in New Hampshire, he was running against Ronald Reagan. The president is idolized here, and no one wants to hear about his sins and mistakes. Bush is slavishly loyal to Reagan, and so Republicans are loyal to Bush.

Another thing: Republicans, at least in New Hampshire, extend the same indulgence towards Reagan's heir apparent that they have given to Reagan in the last eight years. One Bush backer, outside the hall where Bush was taking bows for his redemption -- and claiming, inaccurately, that he had won "by sticking to the issues" -- said tolerantly, "The man is 60 years old, he can't change now."

New Hampshire told Bush that he can get away with murder. It's okay if he can't explain his explanations of what he did during Iran-contra. Who cares about that, anyway?

He shouldn't worry about his part in the unfolding shame of the U.S. involvement with drug lord Manuel Noriega or his friendship with Oliver L. North and John M. Poindexter.

He mustn't trouble himself about the Seabrook reactor mess and the future of nuclear power -- the issue that worked for Democrat Michael S. Dukakis. Bush never went beyond saying "I'm for nuclear power," and Portsmouth, the biggest city near the plant, chose him over Dole, who had been preaching safety.

Iowa told him that he had a problem. New Hampshire said it was blue skies from now on. Bush is the Democrats' favorite candidate. Right now, having won favor in New Hampshire's cold eye, he's the Republican favorite, too.