NEW ORLEANS, MARCH 2 -- Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) indirectly questioned today whether Vice President Bush, when he was director of the Central Intelligence Agency, knew of the alleged drug activities of Panama's military strongman, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.

At a news conference here, Dole raised the issue as a way of questioning the worth of Bush's experience at the CIA during the Ford administration. "He says he made all those decisions at the CIA," Dole said. "What were they? Was Noriega on the payroll when he was CIA director?"

Dole offered no evidence for raising this possibility.

Earlier this week, before Dole raised the issue, Bush had been asked by reporters about Noriega and drugs. Bush said then that the first he knew of the Panamanian's suspected involvement in drugs was when Noriega was indicted recently by federal grand juries in Florida.

Questioned about his suggestions, Dole said Bush's former chief of staff, retired admiral Daniel J. Murphy, "represented Panama" and that there is "some evidence that {Noriega} was on the CIA payroll for some time," perhaps since 1966. (Murphy has said in an interview that he represented businessmen interested in investing in Panama, not the Panamanian government.)

Asked if he were accusing Bush of knowledge of drug-related activities by Noriega when Bush headed the CIA, Dole said, "All I'm saying is that Bob Dole said no to drugs, no to thugs, no to Noriega."

Dole did not directly suggest that Bush knew of Noriega's alleged activities, but that was the clear implication of his statement. A senior Dole campaign official offered reporters a "clarification," in essense strengthening the charges, but The Washington Post declined to print the allegations because the official would allow them to be attributed only to an unnamed person.

Bush press secretary Peter Teeley, responding to Dole's comments, said, "This campaign with him {Dole} is beginning to sound like a campaign with {political extremist} Lyndon LaRouche."

In recent days, Dole and Bush have taken a hard line toward Noriega. Dole has called for a trade embargo if Noriega does not leave Panama in 30 days and suggested the use of U.S. military force if Noriega attempts to interfere with the operations of the Panama Canal or threatens U.S. citizens living in Panama.

Bush, who has been avoiding any response to Dole attacks for the last two days, did the same today, turning his fire instead on a Democrat, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, suggesting he is a foe of military strength.

In an unusual departure from his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Bush used a speech at the Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., to criticize Dukakis' plan to eliminate two carrier battle groups from Navy building plans, which Bush said would be "a cut of 90 fighting ships."

"It's a dumb idea," Bush told several hundred shipyard workers. "You and millions of Americans rejected that kind of defense policy in 1980 and we must not return to that kind of defense policy in 1989," he said to applause.

The vice president's remarks appeared to be a preview of the kind of general election campaign he would like to wage this fall if he wins the GOP nomination. Bush added the comments to his speech at the suggestion of former Navy secretary John F. Lehman Jr., who traveled with Bush today.

The speech came as the Bush campaign was exuding confidence over his strength in the South and his prospects for locking up the nomination shortly after the March 8 "Super Tuesday" primaries. While still facing a challenge from Dole and former television evangelist Pat Robertson, it was unusual for Bush, so close to primary elections, to devote even a part of his message to criticizing a Democrat.

In the shipyard speech, Bush said a president must have "steadiness" and "a calm and even temperament," adding: "In this campaign you've had loose talk about a three-day invasion of Nicaragua or claims that are unsubstantiated about Soviet missiles in Cuba." This referred to a disputed remark attributed to Dole last year after he visited Nicaragua, and to Robertson's claims about the missiles.

"Let me tell you something, things are different when you're in the White House. You can't make these outrageous claims," Bush said.

Staff writer David Hoffman contributed to this report.