Washington — Bush-whackers could be the big story for Republicans in 1988. Vice-President George Bush has pulled far ahead in the GOP race, according to national polls. But there's political danger ahead, especially in the first two major contests, which are both in the Midwest.
In Michigan, the Pat Robertson brigade is waiting to ambush Mr. Bush in the first-in-the-nation voting, which begins at county conventions Jan. 14. Mr. Robertson's crusading army of volunteers already has embarrassed the Bush forces there in early skirmishing.
In Iowa, Robert Dole's Farm Belt connections have moved him out front in the latest Des Moines Register poll, released last weekend.
A Bush loss in Iowa, where he upset Ronald Reagan in 1980, on the heels of a defeat in Michigan, could cast doubts on the vice-president's political appeal.
That means Bush might have to wait until the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 16 to rally his forces for their first big victory.
By then, however, the momentum could have shifted to another candidate, and the vice-president's national standing could be sliding. This, in turn, could bode ill for Bush in the March 8 Super Tuesday voting.
Prof. David W. Moore, an expert on New Hampshire politics, says the vice-president's large lead in that state could be misleading. Results in Iowa could change the outlook in New Hampshire for Bush and the other Republicans overnight, Professor Moore notes.
With only one week between the two elections, there would be insufficient time for Bush to recover from the effects of a serious loss in Iowa, Moore says.
Yet some analysts say Bush can hardly lose, given his broad support within the GOP. Says conservative commentator Pat Buchanan:
``Bush is a lot closer to wrapping this thing up than people think.''
Mr. Buchanan, who served for a time as President Reagan's director of communications, claims that Bush already has cut a deal to make US Rep. Jack Kemp of New York his running mate. Mr. Kemp denies it.
Perhaps the greatest danger to Bush in the coming months lies in Iowa. Bush, who has made loyalty to President Reagan his trademark, has been hurt because of the declining popularity of the President in the Hawkeye State.
Although Bush has solidified his lead in national polls, he has been unable to overcome Senator Dole's margin in Iowa. The Register, which conducted its most recent survey Oct. 29-Nov. 12, gave Dole 36 percent and Bush 30 percent among Republican voters. The rest of the field was far behind, with Kemp at 9 percent, Robertson at 8 percent, former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV at 5 percent, and retired Gen. Alexander Haig, 2 percent.
However, the threat to Bush in Iowa could be even greater than these numbers show.
Only 100,000 to 150,000 Republicans are expected to turn out the evening of Feb. 8 for the GOP presidential caucuses in Iowa - a narrow slice of voters in a state with 3 million people. Under those circumstances, a relatively small, well-organized group with as few as 15,000 to 20,000 people can dramatically change the outcome, especially with six candidates in the race.
That's where Robertson comes in. In Michigan, Iowa, and Florida, he has already stunned Bush by skillfully organizing his intensely loyal followers. Robertson people are the kind who will climb out of their easy-chairs to vote at a Tuesday night caucus - even when it's 20-below-zero, the snow is falling, and their favorite show is on TV.
In contrast, Bush's followers look like political couch potatoes. When he lost a straw poll last month in Iowa, the vice-president explained that many of his supporters didn't show up because of social engagements.
A brief overview of the Republican six:
Bush. Boosted his percentage margin over Dole to 47-22 in the latest Gallup Poll. It was 40-19 in September. Has plenty of cash on hand and a good organization. Latest New Hampshire poll shows him expanding his lead over Dole to 50-22.
Dole. Biggest threat to Bush. Poll numbers are solid, especially in Iowa where he may be unbeatable. Dole's campaign was slowed by an uninspired performance in the first GOP debate in Houston Oct. 29, and by heavy responsibilities as Senate minority leader. He's expected to come out swinging in the next debate.
Robertson. Wild card in the race. Pollsters find it difficult to measure his strength. Many supporters are Democratic switchers. He has trouble tapping mainstream Republican support, Professor Moore says a Robertson win in New Hampshire is not inconceivable.
Kemp. Slumped from 9 per-cent to only 4 percent in the latest Gallup reading, but pollsters warn that the poll had a possible margin of error of 5 percent. Campaign seems to lack electricity, but he still hopes to do well in Michigan, Iowa, New Hampshire. That could make him the conservative alternative to Bush. However Robertson, Haig, and du Pont are fighting him for that same role
Haig. Stuck near bottom of polls, despite high name recognition. New ad campaign will be unveiled Nov. 23 to rally his troops, win new recruits.
Du Pont. Cellar dweller in the national polls, but up a notch in Iowa. Still pushing his conservative, but iconoclastic, agenda, in hopes of winning the party's conservative base. Desperately needs a breakthrough in Iowa. Raised $125,000 at a New York fundraiser last week and $450,000 in October, his best month yet.
The Monitor reported Monday that conservative commentator Pat Buchanan said Vice-President George Bush and US Rep. Jack Kemp have ``cut a deal to make [Kemp] his running mate.'' Mr. Buchanan denies having made the statement, which was drawn from a report in the Presidential Campaign Hotline.