Washington — Cautiously and quietly George Bush is getting ready for 1988. The vice-president is very visible these days, active on both the diplomatic and political fronts as he carries out his official duties and begins laying the groundwork for an expected presidential campaign.
On Sunday he departed for Europe for a marathon tour of seven capitals to discuss arms talks, trade, and other issues affecting the Atlantic alliance -- including the burning question of what can be done to combat terrorism. When he returns to Washington July 3, Mr. Bush will convene a government task force to develop recommendations for the President on how to deal with the problem.
He has also taken some political steps, organizing a new staff and setting up a political action committee called the Fund for America's Future. Designed to help GOP candidates in 1986, the fund will enable him to co-opt a strong role in the midterm elections, heighten his exposure, and provide a fund-raising mechanism should he decide to run for president.
Vice-presidential aides say Bush is no more active in this second term than he was in the first. It is simply that the news media are focusing on him more because of the anticipated presidential push.
But it is conceded that he is playing a stronger operational role at the White House and has a close relationship with President Reagan as confidant and adviser.
Bush meets with the President and White House chief of staff Donald Regan every morning at 9. At 9:30 they are joined by national-security adviser Robert McFarlane for a national-security briefing.
``So he's with the President the first hour of every day, and that is a change,'' says his press spokesman, Marlin N. Fitzwater.
During the first term, Bush was included in these meetings perhaps twice or three times a week, but by invitation. Mr. Regan is said to have changed the system, because with a single White House manager (instead of the first-term troika), he wanted someone present with another perspective -- and, some say, he wanted an ally.
While Bush says he will not make a decision about whether to run until after the 1986 elections, his almost constant round of diplomatic and political activities is giving him high visibility in Republican quarters. Aides say he gave more than 250 speeches during the 1982 campaign and will match that pace this year. Just since April, says Mr. Fitzwater, the vice-president has visited more than a dozen cities, given 25 speeches at GOP fund raisers, and met with state and local GOP leaders.
On July 4, Bush will march in a parade in New Hampshire, the state which normally conducts the first presidential primary. Aides quote him as saying he will simply be fulfilling a postponed commitment. But the political value of the visit is self-evident.
Ensconced at the White House, Bush walks a fine political line, say GOP strategists. He seeks to be perceived as the President's loyal, hard-working servant. Yet he needs at some point to distance himself from the President and carve out a niche for himself.
``Here he has a problem,'' says James Lake, who was with the Reagan-Bush reelection campaign. ``If he tries to distance himself, the media will jump on him, and the partisan conservatives will say, `What's he doing? Backing away from Ronnie?' So he has to show that he's looking to the future, but not go so far out that he's seen to be a traitor.''
What strategy Bush adopts will depend on the state of the economy and the Reagan presidency.
``We could have a Teflon-coated vice-president -- going along with this President where he's not tagged with problems,'' says Paul Light of the National Academy of Public Administration. ``But his candidacy hangs by a slender thread. . . . Bush will never receive credit for Reagan's successes in the second term, but he will receive the blame for any failures.''
According to his aides, Bush views his best political strategy as being a good vice-president and fully supporting the President. Then, if he runs in 1988, he will expand on his ideas for the future without separating himself from Reagan policies. He already is focusing on such 1990s issues as high-tech entrepreneurship, export policy, and economic growth.
Bush insiders expect him to continue echoing the Reagan conservatism. There are lingering suspicions among some hard-line conservatives that Bush is more liberal than he sounds, although he has the backing of Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell. But those who know him well insist his ideology has been misread.
``He always was conservative,'' says Victor Gold, who has written many speeches for him. ``You have the [different] perception, because his father was a US senator from the East and Bush went to Yale. But if you check his policies in 1980 and what he talked about, what John Anderson said is right -- he's Ronald Reagan in a Brooks Brothers' suit.''
Looking to a more politically oriented second term, Bush has completely revamped his staff, bringing in former Reagan aide Craig L. Fuller as his chief of staff. And, while not everyone at the White House is a Bush backer, he has the support of such key Reagan people as Edward J. Rollins, the President's assistant for political affairs, and Lee Atwater, who was a member of the 1984 Reagan-Bush campaign team and is now an independent consultant.