That admission may make it difficult for the vice president to take credit for the Reagan Administration's accomplishments. John Maxwell, an adviser to another presidential hopeful, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), who is third in polls of Iowa Republicans, said: "The greatest challenge is for Bush to reconcile the idea that he's had a high profile in the White House" with his apparent lack of participation in the Iran arms sale decision.
Bush also accepted the presidential commission's conclusion that the Administration, undercutting its own policy of refusing to bargain with terrorists, sold arms to Iran in hopes that hostages held by Iranian-supported terrorists would be released. That concession was particularly uncomfortable for Bush, who headed the Administration task force that developed the policy on terrorists.
Perhaps more important than the immediate damage that the Iran controversy has dealt to Bush's standing in the polls, it has dulled the shine of invincibility on Bush's campaign.
'Cut to the Heart'
"The whole Iran situation cut to the heart of his candidacy," an adviser to Kemp said. "For two years, Bush has tried to push the stone of inevitability up to the top of the mountain, (the idea that) people should be for George Bush because he is going to win."
If Bush is going to win the Republican nomination, his supporters say he must make a strong showing in next February's Iowa caucuses.
Seven years ago, he won a dramatic upset victory here, reaping more than 30% of the Republican vote in a field of seven candidates. Second-place finisher Ronald Reagan proceeded to trounce Bush in the New Hampshire primary, the second big event on the 1980 presidential calendar, and went on to the Republican nomination and the presidency.
Much of Bush's 1980 organization still is in place and more than 2,300 Iowans have already pledged to work for the vice president. Such organization is particularly crucial in states like Iowa, where candidates are selected at caucuses of party activists rather than in primaries for all registered Republicans.
Not a Fresh Face
This time, however, Bush is no longer a fresh face in Iowa. Instead, said David Keene, Bush's political director in 1980 but a Dole adviser this year, the vice president has a record to defend--and beyond Iran, he is certain to be held accountable for the Administration's unpopular farm policy.
In Des Moines, Peter Brent, coordinator of a hot line called Prairiefire, told Bush that the new jobs created by an expanding economy during the Reagan Administration for out-of-luck farmers pay the minimum wage. "You can't pay the rent for $3.35 an hour," he protested. "What are you going to do to make the heartland of America wealthy, prosperous and feeling good again?"
Bush stood by the Administration's farm policy and stressed free-market solutions. The only new twist he offered was massive use of corn to produce ethanol as an alternative to oil-based fuel--a course that Agricultural Department economist Gerald Grinnell last week called "a very inefficient way to raise farm income."
Defining His Message
Bush's partisans and detractors agree that he must define his own new message rather than rely on the support of those who regard him as Reagan's loyal lieutenant and inevitable successor.
"There has to be an indication that he has a new vision of America in the 1990s, and that he has a different approach and style from Reagan," said Rep. Tom Tauke (R-Iowa), who is working for Bush here.
The vice president has promised to sharpen the distinctions as he stumps the country in a series of commencement addresses this spring.
Thus far, however, he has provided only the outlines of a program that he says will center on "jobs and peace." Asked how he would eliminate the federal deficit, for example, Bush called on Congress to meet the budget-balancing goals of the Gramm-Rudman law, which fiscal experts in Washington are increasingly dismissing as unrealistic.
If Bush veers sharply from Reagan Administration policies, he risks reminding voters of his embarrassing 1980 about-face. After becoming Reagan's vice presidential running mate, he embraced the same Reagan fiscal program that he had called "voodoo economic policy" as a presidential candidate. He also dropped his support for the equal rights amendment and took a more conservative stance on abortion.
Thus, the man who boasts one of the strongest resumes to be found in public life has found himself derided by cartoonist Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" comic as having put his manhood into a blind trust.
Even conservative columnist George F. Will, one of the Administration's staunchest defenders, last year called Bush a "lap dog." Will wrote: "The unpleasant sound Bush is emitting as he traipses from one conservative gathering to another is a thin, tinny 'arf.' "
For all of the President's enduring popularity, Republicans say they want more from Bush than promises that he will carry on for Reagan.
"For him to follow the Reagan line--hook, line and sinker--is a losing effort," said Fred Garwood, an attorney who attended a $250-a-plate Rochester, N.Y., party fund-raiser at which Bush spoke a few weeks ago. "Even if he gets the nomination, it won't be worth anything."
George Cefalu, a Rochester builder, added: "He has to be able to stand on what he believes the country should be doing."