SAN FRANCISCO — Hardly anyone has been more of a public cheerleader and deferential loyalist for Ronald Reagan during the last five years than Vice President George Bush. But now, as Bush looks ahead toward the challenge of his own likely presidential campaign, he is moving, as one aide explained, to "develop his own emphasis" and his own political presence.
The issue he hopes will accomplish this is international trade.
It is a subject, some Bush strategists believe, on which Reagan policies have not been sharply defined and on which Bush can etch his own image, a "natural marriage," as one aide called it, between current events and the vice president's foreign policy credentials as a former CIA director and U.S. emissary to China.
A major trade speech in San Francisco Wednesday before the business-oriented Commonwealth Club was a step by the Bush in this direction.
Bush warned that countries whose trading policies are "unfair" could jeopardize aid they receive from the United States. And, although he was across the nation from the trade meetings in Washington, Bush attracted national attention to himself, along with the President.
Bush's press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, emphasized that Bush was not departing from presidential policies. At the same time, the press secretary added, Bush's efforts did not represent an agreement by the President and vice president to "divide up territory or anything like that."
"There are areas that the Reagan Administration (policy) hasn't closely defined but that are consistent with the Reagan program," explained Fitzwater, one of a couple of important presidential deputies who recently moved to the Bush camp.
"The vice president is developing his own emphasis . . . in expanding exports, reducing the trade deficit and achieving a better alignment of (international) currencies."
Fitzwater, speaking in an interview, added, "This is a natural marriage of current economic conditions with his foreign policy strengths."
The new strategy is an acknowledgement that Bush's unswerving embrace of almost every element of Reagan doctrine has left the vice president without a discernable voice of his own on politics. From the start, this was by design. Bush set out to win Reagan's confidence and upgrade the office of vice president by playing the role of private adviser and public champion for Reagan.
Now, however, with other Republicans briskly moving into place for the 1988 campaign, Bush is joining in. And it's not just by what he is saying on trade.
When questioned in San Francisco, Bush insisted, "I believe the best politics is relatively no politics for me."
But, he quickly added: "I know what is beating in my breast. I guess most of the American people, including my wife, know what that is."
If words weren't enough, the symbols of Bush's four-day California swing were hard to misread. His schedule, among other things, had him making a walking tour of San Francisco's Chinatown on Wednesday and a visit Friday to Los Angeles' Olvera Street, the kind of places that almost never attract officeholders with visions of retirement beating in their breasts.