BLOOMFIELD, N.J., SEPT. 20 -- "I've never been to a flag factory!" Republican nominee George Bush exuded today as he sought to wrap the Stars and Stripes ever tighter around his campaign for the presidency.

Bush went to the aging red-brick plant here where Annin & Co. workers sew pieces of red, white and blue into thousands of American flags every day. "Wouldn't working here lift your spirits?" Bush was asked by Republican Senate challenger Pete Dawkins as they left the factory.

"Oh, yeah!" Bush replied.

But spirits seemed to be flagging among workers and neighbors who gathered in a gravel lot across the street, framed by three gigantic flags, to hear Bush speak. Although the set was picture-perfect for Bush's patriotic message, the meager crowd hardly applauded, hecklers interrupted Bush and a union official threw a little cold water on his day.

"Right now, they're for him," said Edna Tanchak, a union steward in the flag factory, referring to the workers, many of whom do not speak English. "When he leaves, they'll be for Dukakis."

Bush has criticized Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis for vetoing a bill in Massachusetts that would have required teachers to lead their classes in the Pledge of Allegiance. The vice president has made a special effort to cast Massachusetts Gov. Dukakis in an unfavorable light on patriotism, declaring last week, for instance, that the GOP ticket is "on the optimistic side, the American side."

Today, Bush sought to use the flag as a billboard for what he called "the new pride in America" and "our renewed strength and our continuing economic growth." He did not mention the Pledge of Allegiance issue, which Dukakis has compared to the smear politics of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy in the 1950s.

Commenting on the factory's output of 7,000 3-by-5-foot flags and 30,000 miniature flags every week, Bush acknowledged indirectly that Dukakis also has been showing the flag: "I know that Gov. Dukakis and I are responsible for only half of that business, so things are going well across the country."

While Bush has been pointing to increased flag sales as a measure of the Reagan era's success, Randolph Beard Jr., company president, was circumspect. "I don't know exactly why it has happened," he said, "but it certainly has happened, and it happened on the Reagan-Bush watch."

The muted crowd had mixed feelings about the flag as a campaign issue. Cheryl Kozyra, a former New Jersey schoolteacher, said she used to lead her classes in the pledge. "I feel patriotism isn't emphasized enough in the schools," she said. But David Gregory, a Republican, said Bush should "get off the Pledge of Allegiance and get to where he is on the issues."

Even the textile workers' union seemed divided. Craig Livingston, a lawyer for the union, distributed anti-Bush fliers purporting to be an "open letter" from factory workers. But the local union president, Pat Lomanto, escorted by Bush aides, told reporters that the letter did not represent workers' views and said "we never heard of" the union's lawyer.

The factory workers -- Puerto Rican, Yugoslavian, Chinese, Colombian, Indian, Greek and Lebanese -- are paid piece rates.

Later, Bush told the crowd outside, "Since 1849, an Annin flag has flown high on January 20th every four years, presiding over the swearing-in of the president of the United States. And that's a ceremony I hope to be a part of this coming year."

Bush's American history missed the mark: The inaugural ceremony has been held in January only since 1937; before that, it was held in March.