SAN FRANCISCO, SEPT. 19 -- In the first midterm election of his presidency in 1982, Ronald Reagan traveled the nation asking voters to choose Republicans to help him "Stay the Course." The GOP lost 26 House seats.

Four years later, Reagan basked in record popularity as he traveled to 22 states telling voters it was the last time they could "win one for the Gipper" by voting Republican. That year the GOP lost eight Senate seats and control of that body and five seats in the House.

George Bush, an active campaigner as vice president in 1982 and 1986, appears to have a different idea for this midterm election: Go local and low key.

Not for him the searing partisanship of Reagan, who came here in 1986 to accuse Democrats of being "architects of America's military decline," of playing "fast and loose with the lives" of soldiers, and of "looking at your take-home pay as their own personal treasury."

And not for him the linking of his personal success with the election of members of his party, as Reagan did in a televised message from the Oval Office on the eve of the 1986 elections and as Jimmy Carter and presidents before him routinely have done in midterm campaigns.

"I have embarked on a tough, sometimes unpopular program to control inflation in our nation, to stabilize the value of the dollar, to have integrity and purpose and responsible monetary policy," Carter said in the fall of 1978. "If you care about the maintenance of this effort and the success of it, then . . . vote Democratic."

The Democrats lost three seats in the Senate and 11 in the House that year.

For Bush, who helped to raise $5.2 million for GOP candidates during a two-day trip to California and Colorado that ended today, the message is far more pedestrian: Vote for the candidate standing beside me because he or she is the better man or woman for the people of this state.

None of the president's political speeches this year has featured a stirring call to arms on behalf of him or his party. Instead, Bush offers testimonials to the character and qualities of candidates, with party mentioned in passing or not at all.

At a Colorado GOP fund-raiser in Denver Tuesday, Bush uttered the word "Republican" once and "Democrat" not at all. Instead, he explained his Persian Gulf and domestic budget policies in language nearly identical to his speech to Congress last week without a hint of partisanship. And he praised "this tremendous ticket we've got here . . . this strong team of congressional challengers ready to fight for what's best for Colorado and for this country."

In California Tuesday night at a fund-raiser for Sen. Pete Wilson, the GOP gubernatorial candidate, Bush offered a paean of praise for the candidate and a call not to partisanship but to good citizenship. "We can serve our country by being the best candidates, the best citizens, and yes, the best Republicans and Democrats we can be," he said.

Starting on this swing, Bush campaign speeches have added an appeal to vote. GOP officials said they fear low turnout will hurt them most and argue that thousands of younger voters who cast their ballots for Bush in 1988 and lean Republican are the most likely to stay home.

Even before the Persian Gulf crisis and wrenching budget talks made attacks on Democrats tricky, Bush generally held his partisan fire, a reflection of the difference between his presidency and Reagan's.

"Reagan governed by confrontation; Bush governs by consensus," a GOP official said. "It's almost impossible to be working with guys in Washington and tearing them apart in Oshkosh. They {the White House} don't have a 'strategy' of local themes, they have a necessity."

GOP officials, many of whom were involved in Reagan's two midterm efforts, also cite statistical evidence indicating that even a president as popular as Bush is today has little ability to affect votes in congressional and gubernatorial elections. In the postwar years, the party that controlled the White House has lost an average of four Senate and 28 House seats in midterm elections.

That historic lesson was reinforced by the results of a poll conducted in July by the National Republican Congressional Committee that asked voters whether having Bush campaign for the local GOP congressional candidate would affect their vote. More than 77 percent said it would make no difference.

Ed Rogers, a deputy to White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu who coordinates the White House political operation, said, "We are persuaded the most important thing is to help these campaigns run the most effective campaign they can. A national theme doesn't lend itself to that."

According to Sununu, meetings with Republican candidates and campaign officials made clear that "a lot of the candidates don't care" about having a national message superimposed by Washington over their campaigns. So Bush, for the most part, keeps to local themes. If a candidate is stressing an anti-crime message, Bush will too. If a candidate wants to be seen as an environmentalist, Bush will stress that part of his -- and the candidate's -- record.

Here in California at one fund-raiser, Wilson was a grandson of a policeman who "means business" in fighting street crime. Today, at a luncheon he was "a champion of the environment, a champion for victims of crime, a champion for hard-working taxpayers."

Sununu said Bush stresses national themes but "in a nonpartisan way." He said he and the president are persuaded that "real hard partisanship bites only in the last 10 days" of a campaign.

"We are keeping our options open" to go partisan if, for example, the budget talks crumble, Sununu said.

Staff researcher Bruce Brown in Washington contributed to this report.