NASHUA, N.H. — When the Republican presidential contenders lined up for a group picture at this weekend's party conference here, one candidate was conspicuous by his absence.
"Where's George?" former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont asked pointedly.
"George who?" snapped New York Rep. Jack Kemp.
The missing George was, of course, Vice President George Bush, who, by staying away from the conference's opening dinner Friday night and getting a preferred speaking slot Saturday, touched off a controversy that appeared to overshadow the rest of the meeting's agenda.
State Sen. Paul Cellucci of Massachusetts, who will head Bush's as-yet-undeclared campaign in that state, said the vice president's rivals were "trying to make a mountain out of a molehill."
And the flap over scheduling at this get-together for GOP activists from 13 Northeastern states may indeed be trivial in the long run. But at the moment it serves to dramatize the disturbing fact for the Republicans that as 1988 approaches, the long period of party harmony ushered in by the Reagan presidency is coming to an acrimonious end.
This development, made inevitable by Ronald Reagan's forthcoming departure from the White House but undoubtedly hastened by the unsettling impact of the Iran- contra scandal, is casting a cloud over the GOP as the preliminary skirmishing of the 1988 contest for the nomination gets under way.
Contributing to the tension is the unsettled state of the presidential contest.
Bush, once the undisputed front-runner in the polls, now does not appear to be all that much out in front. And a good many of the activists attending this conference, whose support is critical at this early stage of the campaign, are having trouble making up their minds.
Some are looking beyond Bush, Kemp and Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas at the lesser known contenders.
"I think people are tired of Dole, unimpressed with Bush, and Kemp has just not caught fire," said Norman Watts, a Woodstock, Vt., lawyer and a veteran of the Reagan and Gerald R. Ford presidential campaigns. "After Carter and Reagan, they want someone who has experience as a government insider."
Watts is backing Donald H. RuMsfeld, former defense secretary and now a corporate executive whom Watts calls "an outsider with inside experience."
Intrigued by Du Pont
Others are intrigued by Du Pont, whose supporters describe him as "the only candidate who is really talking about ideas."
"He gave me the right answer about SDI," said Dorothy Comery of Newport, R.I., after Du Pont had told her during a chat in his hospitality suite that he supported Reagan's plans for the Strategic Defense Initiative as a guard against nuclear attack. Still, she is not certain whom she will back.
Neither is her husband, Robert, a retired English professor, although he says he has eliminated at least one candidate--television evangelist Pat Robertson, who in the past has claimed remarkable results for his prayers.
"In 1985 Robertson said he prayed Hurricane Gloria away from the Virginia coast where he lives," Comery recalled. "Well, that storm came up and hit us hard in Rhode Island."
Discord Over Schedule
The discord over Bush's schedule at this big GOP get-together less than a year before the nation's first presidential primary in this state is scarcely what New Hampshire GOP Chairman Elsie Vartanian had in mind when she planned this meeting.
She billed it originally as "an evening with the next President," and, according to party sources, intended to create an opportunity for rank-and-file GOP workers to hear and question the policy views of their 1988 contenders.
But then Bush passed up the policy discussions, along with a joint appearance at the opening night dinner, and agreed to come only as the keynote speaker on Saturday. Bush's supporters blamed the demands of his schedule, but his foes suspected, and some of Bush's aides privately admitted, that the vice president wanted to set himself apart.
An Apolitical Speech
When Bush did show up Saturday for his luncheon speech, he took no note of the controversy. After working the room, shaking hands with most of the 300 luncheon guests, he delivered an apolitical speech in defense of the CIA, which he once directed.
His biggest applause came when he attacked those who have leaked secret information, saying: "The Administration needs to make some examples of leakers in our own ranks by publicly firing them. And I don't care how high up they are."
Bush's success in getting star billing at the conference particularly rankled Republican Senate leader Dole, who, according to the polls, has been cutting down Bush's once overwhelming lead in the 1988 presidential competition.
Characteristically, Dole dismissed the special arrangements for Bush with a wisecrack: "All candidates are created equal, but some are more equal than others."
Drives Point Home