Washington — This week, Vice-President George Bush makes his first major speech since the secret funding for contra rebels hit the headlines. Political experts say he must put on a sterling performance. It is widely agreed here that the current crisis puts Mr. Bush's political future in jeopardy.
``Bush has been hurt very badly,'' says political analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
John Deardourff, a top GOP consultant, observes: ``This has the potential for a devastatingly negative impact on Bush for 1988. He's the most seriously threatened. ... From the purely political standpoint, the Republican Party has to reconsider how it approaches the 1988 election.''
Bush has consistently led every poll as the party favorite for the 1988 presidential nomination. That strong position has been based on two things:
Closeness to President Reagan.
Loyalty to President Reagan.
Now, for the first time, those two qualities which have served Bush so well have come into conflict with the vice-president's quest for the presidency.
The closer Bush draws to Mr. Reagan, the greater his loyalty, the more he could be hurt by the contra imbroglio. Yet if he looks as if he is distancing himself from Reagan, Bush could lose critical support from conservative Republicans.
If Bush is hurt, a small army of Republican hopefuls is waiting in the wings to take his place at the head of the '88 ticket.
A number of analysts say that at least three Republicans could be helped in the short run by the contra situation, if they handle themselves properly: US Rep. Jack Kemp of New York, Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, and former Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee.
Senator Dole has already moved to separate himself from the White House by calling for a special session of Congress to create a Watergate-style committee to probe the contra funding.
Yet if the damage continues to spread, some consultants say, the Republicans may look beyond Washington for their next nominee.
Political consultant Deardourff, for example, says the impact of the current situation could be much greater than expected, and that the damage could spread far beyond those now in the White House.
``The problem with trying to characterize the [contra] situation is that we are at the very earliest stage of this thing. The history is that these tend to get worse before they get better.''
Mr. Deardourff expects a ``very protracted period'' of ``intense investigation - months or years of investigation.''
He says that could lead the GOP to seek its next nominee from the ranks of the nation's governors, such as Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, James Thompson of Illinois, or Thomas Kean of New Jersey. Former Delaware Gov. Pete duPont, the only announced presidential candidate for 1988, could also get a boost.
G. Donald Ferree, associate director of the Roper Center, cautions that the political fallout from the secret funding hasn't yet been felt much beyond the Washington Beltway. So Bush's problems should not be exaggerated.
Mr. Ferree observes that if an ``outsider'' like Governor Thompson or Governor Kean won the nomination in 1988, it would be a ``repudiation of Ronald Reagan.'' Ferree adds: ``The GOP is not ready for that yet.''
Even so, the storm signals are flying. Bush has prided himself in working on the inside against terrorism, working for the Nicaraguan contras, and being close to the intelligence community. But all three are part of the current crisis and tie him closer to it.
What also worries some analysts here is Reagan's defiant attitude about the crisis. Even as leading Republicans here call for a thorough, bipartisan investigation, Reagan tells Time magazine that the whole crisis is ``Beltway bloodletting,'' and proclaims: ``I'm not going to back off; I'm not going to crawl in a hole.''
Dr. Ornstein says Reagan ``seems mesmerized.'' The President has always been ``a pragmatist and a realist,'' says Ornstein, but ``this is bunker-mentality stuff.''
In the long run, that could do more than anything to hurt GOP prospects in 1988.