MANCHESTER, N.H. — Alexander M. Haig Jr. ended his quixotic quest for the presidency Friday, endorsing Kansas Sen. Bob Dole and attacking Vice President George Bush as no more than a spectator in Reagan Administration councils.
Asked his opinion of Bush's involvement in important decision-making, the former secretary of state said Bush had merely "been there, period."
More than 200 reporters and at least 30 television cameras were in the room for Haig's announcement, by far the most coverage he received at any time in his yearlong campaign. He withdrew from the race for the Republican presidential nomination at a news conference on a day when a snowstorm played havoc with the schedules of the remaining candidates.
He opened by saying his assessment of the race had made it clear that "Al Haig will not be the 1988 Republican nominee."
Haig received less than 1% of the vote in the Iowa precinct caucuses Monday and was receiving only about 1% support in polls of Republican voters in New Hampshire.
He endorsed Dole as the candidate who "embodies best my understanding of the crucial challenges we face."
Dole appeared briefly at Haig's side to say that the endorsement "means a great deal to me personally" and that the former NATO commander had told him he wanted no role in a Dole Administration.
While free with his praise of Dole, Haig seemed to relish even more his attacks on Bush.
"What have you got against George Bush?" Haig was asked.
"Not a single thing in terms of George Bush," he replied. "He's a friend; I've known him for 20 years."
But he went on to say that he had worked with both men for two decades and "from my point of view, Bob Dole is head and shoulders above George Bush as a potential President."
"Most important of all," he said, Dole exceeds Bush in "the demeanor, the internal strength, the ability to deal eyeball to eyeball with those who do not share our values around the world."
Bush later phoned WKNE in Keene to boast that he won the immediate endorsement of state Rep. Edward Bennett of Bridgewater, one of Haig's three state co-chairman.
Then on Manchester television, Bush said Bennett "thinks that I'm head and shoulders above Bob Dole."
Haig's greatest contribution to the Dole campaign may well have come earlier, during televised debates when he pressed Bush on his role in the Iran-Contra affair and asked him if he had been "in the cockpit or . . . on an economy ride in the back of the plane" as vice president.
When asked Friday about reports of Bush involvement with Panamanian strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, Haig said, "I do think there's been less than forthright discussion of this issue by the vice president."
Haig withdrew four days before the New Hampshire primary, and when asked about the timing he replied in a sentence typical of what had become known during his public career as "Haigspeak":
"It takes a bit of arrogance to be so ego-involved in a campaign such as this that you want to take the few percentage points that could be critical to another candidate to the political graveyard.
"I'm not that way. I want to make a difference."
As a candidate, the 63-year-old retired general who had announced last year he was "throwing my helmet into the ring" was often openly critical of Reagan Administration domestic and foreign policies.
Speaking with the authority of having been Reagan's first secretary of state, Haig has criticized the President's approach in the Persian Gulf and also has opposed the INF treaty to eliminate medium-range missiles from Europe.