HOUSTON — For weeks, Vice President George Bush's rivals looked forward hungrily to the first full-scale debate by all six hopefuls for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination. They were convinced Bush's front-running campaign would begin to unravel under the scrutiny of the television cameras.
But in the wake of Bush's impressive performance in that confrontation, held here Wednesday night, the vice president's competitors may have to find some other way of catching up with him.
Far from coming across as weak or wimpish, Bush held his own and more--as even the advisers to some other contenders conceded. "He not only survived, he came out very well," Robert Ellsworth, longtime confidant of Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, Bush's chief rival, told a reporter Thursday. "This will improve his standing in the eyes of the press and of the other candidates," said Ellsworth, who until recently was chairman of the Dole campaign.
Bush was crisp and knowledgeable in dealing with a range of domestic and foreign issues. And, faced with serious reservations or outright opposition from the other contenders, Bush presented a spirited defense of the almost-finished treaty with the Soviet Union eliminating all land-based intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe.
But what was probably Bush's finest moment had more to do with character than issues. It came about halfway through the debate, broadcast nationally over public television. When former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV delivered a surprisingly harsh attack on him, Bush used it to show that his backbone is stiffer and sturdier than his critics often allege.
"Where would he lead America?" Du Pont asked scornfully about Bush. "So far we haven't seen any vision, any principles, any policy. We're waiting for details and we're hearing generalities."
Buoyed by hoots and boos for Du Pont from the largely pro-Bush debate audience here in his home town, the vice president hit back. First he ridiculed one of Du Pont's proposals for changing the Social Security system by allowing participants to receive tax credits now in return for reduced benefits later.
"It may be a new idea but it's a dumb one," Bush jeered. Then he added a point which served not only to put down Du Pont but also to build up his own credentials as a consummate government insider.
"It's fine when you're outside carping, criticizing a President. I found it's very different when you're in there having to make the tough calls."
Boasted Lee Atwater, the vice president's campaign manager, "Bush brushed him (Du Pont) off like a gnat." And Bush's pollster Robert Teeter suggested: "Maybe we could get Du Pont to do the same thing in the rest of the debates."
The impression that Bush had done well for himself in the two-hour confrontation, in which the rivals were questioned by conservative columnist William F. Buckley and former Democratic National Chairman Robert S. Strauss, was bolstered by data from the first post-convention poll--taken by SRI research center of Lincoln, Neb.
Out of 400 voters interviewed in 13 states, 34% said Bush "did the best job" in the debate, with former television evangelist Pat Robertson coming in second with 15%.
Robertson was helped during the debate because some of his rivals praised him for broadening the base of the party by attracting evangelical Christians to his cause.
"I'm forever grateful," Robertson's campaign manager Marc Nuttle said afterwards. "They embraced us. They made us part of the mainstream."
Robertson may also have been helped in the poll results because 11 of the 13 states in the survey were in the South, where much of his support is concentrated; the other two states were New Hampshire and Iowa.
Dole and New York Rep. Jack Kemp finished in a tie for third in the poll, with 14% each. DuPont and former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. tied for last with 6%.
Interviewed before the debate, 42% of the respondents said they favored Bush for President with Dole in second place with 23%. After the debate Bush's support edged up to 43% while Dole's dropped to 18% and Robertson's support jumped from 12% to 16%.
Those surveyed were all registered voters who identified themselves as Republicans. The sampling error in the survey was plus or minus 5%, SRI officials said.
The results seemed to mirror opinions among 200 Republicans attending a state fund-raising dinner in Boston Wednesday.
"Bush had a very solid presence," said Bill Barnstead, a former state party chairman and a Du Pont supporter.
"Bush wasn't overpowering, but he didn't disappoint," said Phyllis Stearns, who was also wearing a Du Pont button but said after the debate: "What disturbs me about Du Pont is that he harps on the same few issues every time he speaks."