MASON CITY, Iowa — During six years of loyal service in the supporting cast of Ronald Reagan's White House, Vice President George Bush has been studying his lines for the moment when he could assert his own political identity and begin his bid for the presidency.
Now that moment has come. And for Bush, who went before more than 3,000 Iowa Republicans last week in two grueling days of "Ask George Bush" sessions in seven cities, the circumstances could hardly be less auspicious.
Iran is the reason. Bush, who alone among the potential presidential candidates was present when the Reagan Administration made its ill-fated decision to sell arms to Iran, stands to lose the most from the developing scandal.
"When the chips were going the way they were, he wasn't there," said Daniel Musil, president of a manufacturing firm in Cedar Rapids, after listening to Bush. "It smells. It still does."
For Bush, Iran has only compounded the problem faced by any vice president who tries to assert his own political identity: He cannot disavow the policies of the Administration he serves and--saddled with that burden--no incumbent vice president has won the top job since Martin Van Buren in 1836.
With Iowa Republicans, Bush's approach to that problem was to line up squarely behind the President on the issues but to promise not to adopt Reagan's detached, hands-off style of running the government. That style came under sharp criticism from the presidential commission that reported to Reagan on Feb. 26 on its inquiry into the Iran affair.
Fewer Iran Questions
"You have to be quite a bit hands-on," Bush told Republicans in Waterloo, although "you can do a little too much micromanagement and lose the big picture."
Despite the impact of the Iran issue, however, Bush and his strategists have taken heart that his audiences have asked less about Iran than a host of other issues--farm policy, education, arms control, Social Security and such issues as abortion and school prayer. At Waterloo, he had to bring up Iran himself.
Spreading Economic Woes
But some of those issues work no better for Bush than Iran. In particular, economic woes have spread from Iowa's corn and wheat fields, which are in virtual depression, into almost every other area of the state's economy.
Jim Latham, owner of a small Mason City camera store, told Bush: "Lately, sir, frankly, I've been missing scraping manure and hard Iowa black dirt off of my carpet. I miss it in my store."
Altogether, the Republican Party activists invited to meet with Bush gave him a friendly, warm reception. These are the same Republicans likely to participate next February in the Iowa party caucuses, which are first on next year's calendar of events aimed at selecting delegates to the presidential nominating conventions.
And nationwide, Bush remains the front-runner for the Republican nomination.
But a Des Moines Register poll released last month showed Bush favored by only 28% of the state's Republicans, behind the 33% for Sen. Bob Dole of neighboring Kansas. Nationally, only 32% of the respondents to a New York Times-CBS poll released last Sunday gave Bush a favorable rating, contrasted with 43% in January.
"A year ago, George had a 90% lock on the nomination," said Rep. Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican who supports Bush and traveled through the state with him last week. "Today he is one of several serious candidates."
Strong Suit Now Liability
The Iran scandal has made a liability of what Bush had hoped would be his strong suit--his foreign policy expertise as a former CIA director and U.N. ambassador. "Iran is hurting George Bush more than Ronald Reagan right now," said Rep. Lynn Martin (R-Ill.), a friend of Bush who has not yet committed to a presidential candidate.
George Wittgraf, a lawyer from Cherokee who is running Bush's Iowa campaign, conceded that the Iran affair "has worked to George Bush's disadvantage. . . . It has caused some people to wait longer to make a commitment, particularly in the case of George Bush."
Others don't care. Alvin Holst, a farmer and Reagan delegate at the 1980 Republican National Convention who attended the Bush session in Davenport, said of the drumbeat of Iran coverage on television: "I sometimes get tired of it and turn it off."
Bob Buckley, who attended the meeting with Bush in Waterloo, added: "You're in Iowa, and I think probably people are a little more understanding. People are tired of hearing about it. . . . He's admitted (his mistakes) and he's trying to get on to the future."
Although the presidential commission on the Iran affair had little to say about any role that Bush may have played, the vice president expressed regret to Iowa Republicans that he did not stop it. "I wish I had seen signals and done something differently," he told Republicans in Davenport. "I wish I had been more help in some ways."
Credit for Accomplishments