Spokane, Wash. — George Herbert Walker Bush, who for four years has studiously guarded his close ties with President Reagan by staying out of the limelight and away from controversy, has found himself in the midst of both this election year.
Vice-President Bush refers to himself as merely the ''JV'' (junior varsity team) coach whose performance does not determine the presidential election outcome. But the happenstance of history has made Bush the first in his post to have a female opponent and pushed him to the fore.
''Four years ago, there was no demand for debates'' between the vice-presidential candidates, says Vic Gold, senior adviser to Mr. Bush. The race for the No. 2 spot was a ''big yawn,'' he says. ''This time, of course, there's great excitement.''
Although Bush has attempted to keep the focus on the principals, his own race has put his once colorless and vague image into sharper focus.
During his nationally televised debate with Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine A. Ferraro and at campaign stops since, the vice-president has emerged as an effusive, sometimes unbridled enthusiast, espousing the politics of optimism while lashing out with disdain at his opponents' message of ''despair'' and ''malaise.''
He peppers his speeches with upbeat phrases such as ''America is back with pride'' and ''I am proud to serve with a President who does not apologize for the United States of America.''
Speaking of Democratic presidential nominee Walter F. Mondale to a cheering Spokane rally, he said, ''I've never seen such a gloomy man.'' Mr. Mondale, said Bush, would change the words of ''Home on the Range'' to '' ... where always is heard a discouraging word.''
His ebullience when praising his boss has brought Bush some editorial ridicule. But the vice-president appears undeterred as he travels the country. As he told a public question-and-answer session in Seattle last week when asked about Mr. Reagan's fitness, ''He keeps in beautiful physical shape - mostly upper body (exercise), that kind of stuff. And mentally - I sat through all the (Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A.) Gromyko meetings. No notes. Picking up much more detail than I was able to muster.''
Bush, a Texan raised in Connecticut, ran against Reagan before becoming his vice-president. But he takes care to ensure that no political differences form a wedge between them now. Born into a wealthy Yankee family and educated at the prestigious Phillips Academy and Yale University, he has tried to peel off his patrician background along with his ''moderate'' Republican label. He may have succeeded in the current campaign.
Once a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, Bush now opposes it. His views on abortion have evolved, he announced during his debate with Congresswoman Ferraro, so that he now favors a constitutional amendment banning abortion as long as exceptions are allowed for rape and incest as well as saving the life of the mother. Getting organized prayer back into public schools is now among his central themes.
But these things represent no real switch for Bush, Mr. Gold argues. ''He was and is a strong conservative,'' says the adviser, pointing out that Bush was a delegate for Barry Goldwater at the 1964 GOP convention
During two terms in Congress, 1967-71, Bush's voting record was generally more conservative than fellow Republicans, although he voted for a major civil rights bill in 1968. But he has often traded jabs with the right wing of his party, at least until his debate performance Oct. 11, which won over some of his critics on the right.
Beyond philosophy, the Bush campaign is producing an image that is more apparent because of obvious comparisons with his Democratic counterpart. A World War II Navy pilot who was shot down over the South Pacific, Bush rarely skips an opportunity to remind audiences of his military experience. He also frequently refers to the lengthy list of government posts he has held, although often for only short stints, and to the fact that he started his own oil exploration company in Texas.
''The fact that I fought for my country - I think that enhances my judgment on these matters of security and peace,'' he told an audience gathered at Lutheran High School in Seattle. His posts as envoy to China and as one-time director of the Central Intelligence Agency ''would at least give me a running start,'' he said, should he have to take over as president.
The Bush campaign also is pushing in another, less substantive area. The tall , slim vice-president, who looks as if he belongs in a Manhattan bank far more than on a ball field, continually brings up athletics. An avid runner, he frequently speaks of his daily running, and a favorite introducer at his events is the local football coach.
In Seattle the vice-president was welcomed by Don James, coach of the University of Washington football team, which had just attained a No. 1 ranking in the nation. Bush press secretary Peter Teeley says he hopes to bring one or two professional baseball players along for the closing weeks of the campaign.
''He's a jock,'' says adviser Gold of Bush, who was once captain of the Yale baseball team and, according to Gold, takes his tennis seriously. ''I don't think he overemphasizes the sports thing,'' Gold says.
Using so-called athletic terms has already landed the Bush campaign into one controversy. After the debate with Ms. Ferraro, he boasted that he had ''tried to kick a little ---.''
''I don't feel embarrassed,'' he told reporters last week. He did not echo his aides who are saying the phrase, which almost immediately appeared on buttons in the campaign entourage, might help the Bush image.
Gold says ''it certainly counteracts a bit'' the ''preppy'' label often attached to Bush.
But not all Bush supporters agree. Edith Meeker, a retired secretary in Spokane, said she wanted to tell him to watch his language. ''Let's have a little more statesmanship,'' she said.
The vulgarity, plus demeaning statements made about Ms. Ferraro by members of the Bush entourage, including Mrs. Barbara Bush, have all added to speculation that the GOP campaign has problems dealing with the Queens congresswoman.
For example, Ms. Ferraro asked to be called ''Congresswoman'' Ferraro during the debate. Bush called her ''Mrs. Ferraro,'' although Ferraro is her maiden name and the title ''Mrs.'' is incorrect.
He continues to use that appellation almost every time he refers to his opponent. Furthermore, members of his campaign are still perplexed about her statement during the debate that he had patronized her by offering to ''help'' her with facts regarding Lebanon and Iran. ''I think there may be a sensitivity on her part,'' says Gold.
Does the Bush campaign, as Ferraro has suggested, have trouble dealing with a woman opponent?
''It's certainly different,'' says Bush press secretary Teeley. ''There are no ground rules. ... To deny that this is a historic confrontation is a bit ridiculous.''
But the vice-president came under fire during one campaign stop for a lack of sensitivity toward women. During an ''Ask George Bush'' session in Portland last week, he stood in the center of a crowded hall at the Masonic Temple and called on more than a dozen men, but no women. An organizer then announced there was time for one more question, and a chorus of voices demanded that he called on a woman. Bush complied, and called on a woman first at his next stop.
Usually, the questions are friendly and the crowds appreciative of Bush. But unlike President Reagan, who has conducted a campaign insulated from many close encounters with the public, the vice-president meets with the citizenry continually at small-scale events.
That has sometimes meant going into hostile territory. Bush faced tough questions on arms control and poverty at the Portland forum. And in Seattle he made a stop at the Todd Shipyards, where hundreds of workers expected to receive layoff notices later that same day.
The vice-president, wearing a hard hat and surrounded by shipyard workers, gamely took questions but made no promises that the government could stop the sharp decline at the shipbuilding company. There ''has to be competitive bidding,'' he told them. Bush's arguments might not have won many votes at the shipyard, but Lonny Saisslin, a pipe department worker said, ''I'm impressed with how he handles himself.'' Although he expects to be laid off soon, Mr. Saisslin says might buck his pro-Democratic union and vote Republican.
What appears to impress voters the most about the vice-president is his experience. ''He would make an exceptionally better vice-president'' than Congresswoman Ferraro, says L. W. Thayer, a Spokane lawyer. ''I submit that's more than enough reason to vote Republican.''
''It's one of the crucial things in the election,'' says Virginia Taylor, wife of a Washington state representative, after a Bush rally in Spokane. ''He has experience, whereas Geraldine Ferraro doesn't.''