DES MOINES — The party harmony Republicans hoped to achieve from a conference of 800 Midwestern activists here was marred Saturday when Vice President George Bush, the 1988 presidential front-runner, was subjected to some heavy-duty needling from two of his frustrated, long-shot rivals.
Bush's most severe critic was Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV, the former governor of Delaware, who told a conference session that the vice president had lived for nearly eight years in "a cocoon," insulated by Secret Service agents and staffers from the American people. Du Pont challenged Bush to spell out his views in debates with his rivals.
Former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. complained about the preferential treatment the vice president was receiving at the forum.
For his part, Bush chose to use his own appearance at the conference in this strategic state, which picks its delegates early in the nominating calendar, to reaffirm his personal loyalty to the President at a time of international tension.
Recalls Combat Experience
Discussing the U.S. response to the Iraqi attack on the frigate Stark, Bush recalled that he himself had been in combat during World War II. "I saw my shipmates killed, people on my own airplane killed," he said. "No one mourns the loss of those young men on the Stark more than I do.
"But having said that, we cannot let fear be our guide," he said. "We cannot run and hide. We must not let faint-hearted voices carry the day."
Bush added: "I, for one, will not cut and run from this President when the going gets tough. I'm going to stay with him, shoulder to shoulder."
The conference here was billed as an opportunity to "catch the Republican rising stars." But Bush was the only star allowed to shine on his own, as the main speaker at lunch, when he delivered his 30-minute speech.
Four other candidates--Du Pont, Haig, television evangelist Pat Robertson and New York Rep. Jack Kemp--were each given 15 minutes to speak at a presidential forum later in the day. Kansas Sen. Bob Dole and former Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt will address a similar session today for about the same length of time.
Echos Earlier Conference
This was much the same preferential treatment Bush received at a similar party conference earlier this year in New Hampshire, a fact which made Saturday's schedule here all the more irksome to his competitors.
The first to complain was Haig, who called a news conference to protest the lack of "a level playing field." Haig pointed out that Bush had 30 minutes to make the case for his candidacy against only 15 for "the also-ran candidates."
Because of the time limitation, Haig said, he had decided to postpone announcing a new farm policy proposal, which he described as a modern version of the Homestead Act. "I can't do it in 15 minutes in a cattle chute," he added.
Du Pont's criticism was lengthier and more direct. After mentioning some of his conversations with voters during his barnstorming around the country, he questioned whether Bush could get such grass-roots insights because of his privileged status as vice president.
Coffee Shop Encounters
"How does George Bush get the sort of wisdom that can be found only in the coffee shops and living rooms and county courthouses, talking to the American people?" Du Pont asked.
He suggested that Bush might strengthen his ties to reality by debating other candidates.
Du Pont pointed out that he himself had debated Democratic presidential contender Bruce Babbitt in Des Moines on Friday and noted that Kemp and Democratic Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri had agreed to debate trade policy in Iowa.
"Every candidate ought to debate every other candidate," Du Pont said. "As for George, I'd encourage him to debate anybody, because our country needs to know what he thinks about the future."
Du Pont concluded his comments on Bush with his sharpest dig of all. "You know, looking back on history," he said, "vice presidents virtually have never become, through election, presidents of the United States."
And, Du Pont added: "Based on what I heard yesterday in that debate with Bruce Babbitt, I don't know how the American people would survive a Democratic Administration. So I don't believe we Republicans can afford to lose."