GEORGE BUSH has found it hard to get much respect in this campaign. His voice is too high, we have been told, his syntax too garbled, his style too patrician, his personality too soft; and the man he chose as his running mate in his first ``presidential decision'' is too inexperienced. Each time he has triumphed we have managed to find an explanation that assigns responsibility for it elsewhere. When he beat Bob Dole decisively in the ``Super Tuesday'' primaries back in March, it was because Southern Republicans wanted to affirm their admiration for Ronald Reagan - by voting for his designated heir. When Mr. Bush caught up with Michael Dukakis at the time of the Republican convention, it was because the structure of this election - peace, prosperity, a popular president, an electorate rather satisfied with how things are going - was finally asserting itself. And now, with polls showing him pulling away from his rival, it is because Mr. Dukakis and his advisers have messed things up.
Elements of all these explanations are in fact true. Dukakis is, for example, a weak candidate, the one Democrat who had a chance to be nominated in 1988 whom Republicans all along should have hoped to be able to run against. Clearly in the mainstream of post-1960s liberalism, Dukakis was not the man to help his party overcome the problems it has been having with its public philosophy. And no one should ever have expected him to bring to the campaign the Kennedy-like charisma that might have overcome the Republicans' structural advantage.
Still, we should acknowledge that one main reason that George Bush leads is Bush himself.
A presidential candidate's job is to persuade people to vote for him, and Bush has done his job exceedingly well. On basic strategy, he took the heat as Mr. Reagan's unswervingly loyal vice-president in the expectation, now rewarded, of long-term gain. He is the caring moderate - who strongly defends all of the core elements of the conservative agenda. He has been unremitting, and successful, in his efforts to place Dukakis securely in the line of post-1960s Democratic liberals.
Coming after Reagan, Bush faced a daunting task in establishing his own political identity. Recognizing that the structure of the election favored the incumbent Republicans, Democratic leaders made a concerted effort to depict Bush as a weak leader, not up to the man he served as vice-president. The drumbeat of this attack - lap dog, yes man, wimp - succeeded over the spring and early summer. Bush went into the Republican convention facing a high measure of public doubt.
His acceptance speech was his first big opportunity to address these doubts among the press, Republican activists, and the general public. He succeeded. Polls taken immediately after the convention showed him viewed far more favorably than in preceding months.
The two presidential debates figured prominently in Dukakis's plans. Before the first, most analysts thought Dukakis would gain from these confrontations. The lesson of past debates seemed to be that the candidate of the out-of-power party started with an initial advantage by having a bigger target to attack. But Bush held his own in his first meeting with Dukakis and, in the jury of public opinion, carried the second decisively. Polls taken right after the debate on Oct. 13 gave Bush a larger composite margin over Dukakis than any previous set of debate-night polls had shown for any other candidate.
To win the 1988 election, Bush probably didn't need to convince a majority of voters that in personal terms he was better suited than Dukakis to be president of the United States. Gaining a tie with his opponent on matters of strength, character, likableness, and competence was all he needed, given the underlying advantage with which the Republicans entered the campaign.
But now, 2 weeks before the election, he has in fact won his personal competition with Dukakis. The composite of recent national polls puts Bush about 10 points up in the trial heats - but about 25 points ahead in the ratio of favorable to unfavorable personal assessments. Let all pundits who, six months ago, were predicting this raise their hands.
The way we now conduct our presidential campaigns leaves much to be desired, and after Nov. 8 we should set about trying to improve the system. In the meantime, though, give Bush his due: On the playing field we have permitted to be built for contemporary American politics, he has performed well.