IT'S hard to find any winners after the Monday-night exchange between George Bush and Dan Rather: Dole. Sen. Robert Dole was the most immediate loser. The Iowa caucuses, only days away, were supposed to offer Mr. Dole his finest hour and his chance to upend Vice-President Bush. Bush leads Dole for the nomination everywhere in the country but in the Midwest, where the two are tied. The Bush-Rather tiff has all but wiped Dole's Iowa campaign off the airwaves, except for casting Dole, himself a veteran of acrimonious political bouts, in the role of ringside commentator.
GOP field. The other contenders also lose: If Bush is not beaten badly enough by Dole in Iowa, the rest - Jack Kemp, Pierre duPont, Alexander Haig, Pat Robertson - will fail to make a case for a three- or four-man race and drop out.
Reagan. Against all Throttlebottom precedent, President Reagan was upstaged by his vice-president on, of all occasions, the night of his State of the Union address. More seriously, the President let himself be drawn into commenting on Bush's latest self-defense; he showed himself still confused about his administration's sorriest chapter.
Rather. The newsman's aggressiveness again broke its chain. Mr. Rather pursued fair enough questions on Bush's Iran-contra role, where most Americans think Bush has not told the truth. But Rather allowed himself to come across as a combatant, not just a questioner.
Bush. If we had written the moment after the nine-minute exchange, when Bush went right after Rather, protesting a bait-and-switch invitation to appear, the round would have been scored for the vice-president. He knew he would be asked about the Iran-contra business. He was ready with a rejoinder about Rather's walking off the set for seven minutes in a huff over the intrusion of sports coverage into news time. And if a candidate, seen as suspect by his party's conservatives, picks on someone they see as the Muammar Qaddafi of the liberal media, he has to gain in the short run. So give Bush points for his Monday-night fight strategy and counterpunching.
But what can we say of Bush's remarks afterward? ``The b ... didn't lay a glove on me,'' he said. ``I'm very upset about it. Tell your g ... network that if they want to talk to me to raise their hands at a press conference. No more Mr. Inside Stuff after that.'' And he made a particularly disrespectful reference to CBS interviewer Lesley Stahl. Now, a genuinely confident person does not feel compelled continually to refer to his moxie. What troubles us here, however, is not alone the braggadocio of a politician who may be the next president. His compulsive reference to ``combat'' as the test of character makes one wonder what he might feel compelled to prove as a test of America's character. And his reference to Miss Stahl, like his sexist remarks about his 1984 counterpart, Geraldine Ferraro, shows an insensitivity to the American electoral majority, women.
Bush may claim he was the sandbagged and not the sandbagger Monday night. But what is the omen here for a Bush presidency? Bush practices his own form of media control. He declines to appear with other candidates when it is to his advantage. He has been cautious, circumspect: Now we see he can be contentious. For good or ill, he is setting the media course he will have to live with.