ROBERT DOLE has a clear edge at this point: He is not the vice-president. That, alone, gives him a leg up. Vice-presidents who seek the presidency bear the responsibility, in the eyes of the voters, for anything that went wrong in the administration during their term. This has been a negative for Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and Walter Mondale. Not since the late 1830s, with Martin Van Buren, has an incumbent vice-president been able to climb up to the presidency in the succeeding presidential election.
My thoughts go back to the 1960 election, when, shortly after his extremely narrow loss to John Kennedy, Mr. Nixon was on a post-election tour of the country. The few reporters accompanying him peppered him with this question: How had he managed to lose a race when the early polls had shown him very much out in front?
Nixon could have blamed his bad performance in the debate with Mr. Kennedy; he could have said that a fraudulent Chicago count had given Illinois to Kennedy. But he didn't.
He simply said that as a vice-president he had been a fixed target and unhappiness with the Eisenhower-Nixon administration had been transferred into a winning margin for the Democratic candidate.
Dwight Eisenhower was an extremely popular President. Observers at the time felt that had it not been for the new two-term restriction the well-liked general would have been reelected.
Yet many Americans thought their country, under Ike, was adrift. They wanted a change. Not enough of Eisenhower's popularity transferred to cancel out the desire for a clear-cut shift in leadership.
Ronald Reagan's popularity parallels that of Eisenhower. George Bush obviously benefits from his linkage with Mr. Reagan. But he is hurt by this tie, too. Try as he may, he cannot shake the widespread opinion that he was part of the presidential blunder in sending arms to Iran, including what, to many, appeared as an arms trade for hostages.
Nixon was damaged most in the waning weeks of the 1960 campaign by Kennedy's charges that Eisenhower had let the country's guard down by allowing a missile gap to occur. Nixon denied that the Soviet's had achieved this missile advantage. But polling showed that voters didn't believe him.
Later, at a press conference held by Kennedy's new secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, the alleged missile gap disappeared. Mr. McNamara said it simply didn't exist - that the United States still retained the edge.
Vice-President Bush persists in saying he had reservations about the arms deal with Iran - he was concerned that if it failed, it would make the President and the administration look bad. Mr. Bush also says he expressed his views to the President. But he continues to refuse (and rightly so) to say precisely what he said to the President.
What if Bush provided the press with his notes on his conversations with the President, notes that might have showed he went so far as to say, ``Mr. President, the risks are too great. This could turn out to look like a straight arms-for-hostages deal. And if it fails and is disclosed, you would look very bad''?
Can you see the headlines: ``Bush Warned President About Arms-for-Iran Deal''? Can you imagine the chagrin - even anger - of the President when he read such a headline? Reagan probably wouldn't campaign for Bush - and Reaganites would view this as politically unforgivable, an act of disloyalty from a vice-president who vowed loyalty to the President when he accepted the job.
Further, Bush wouldn't gain much support from those hammering him for more information about his Iran-connected role. They would probably offer this as proof that Bush was not a powerful voice of advice to the President during this administration.
So it is that Senator Dole has a rigid target as his chief adversary. Further, Bush will probably not risk being viewed as disloyal to Reagan in an effort to show his independence from the President's mistakes. Bush likes Reagan, and this feeling is reciprocal.
Bush should win the nomination. As vice-president he has the strong Reagan-Bush political organization working for him throughout the country. Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and Walter Mondale did win the nomination. The rigid-target problem hurt all three - but more so in the general election.
The press and many voters, however, are dumping on Bush during this primary for his role in the Iran-contra affair. Mr. Dole in particular is seeking to benefit from the situation.
Insofar as voters penalize George Bush for his performance in the Iran-contra affair, Robert Dole will be the beneficiary. In the Iowa caucuses, it seems to be giving the Kansan his lead.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.