THE vice-president hasn't pushed up his timetable in the race for the presidency, certainly not on his own. But events -- his eight-hour replacement stint in the highest office in the land -- have themselves advanced the public's consideration of George Bush as a possible full-time successor of Ronald Reagan. Indeed, his race for the White House, in terms of the political realities, has begun. Mr. Bush's official announcement is still set for after the 1986 elections. But while remaining very modest about the import of his short period as acting president, the vice-president has to know that this brief moment in the limelight has helped his prospects.
Let's take the evaluation of a likely adversary, Jack Kemp, who sees Bush as now having gained a ``psychological'' lift. Mr. Kemp says that Bush's filling in for Reagan ``reinforces the fact that he is (a) the vice-president and (b) a good one, and (c) he is very loyal to and very supportive of a very popular President.''
Is Kemp getting a bit ``edgy'' over Bush suddenly receiving so much national attention? Is he going to start his campaign a little earlier as a result? To such questions, Kemp says ``no.'' But he is putting his organization in place. And while his announcement won't come until 1986, either, it seems clear that Bush's one-third of a day in the sun has caused the Buffalo congressman to give serious thought to his race much earlier than he otherwise would.
The news media, too, are focusing on the next presidential race far earlier than usual. And so are other potential candidates, such as Howard Baker and the Doles, Elizabeth and Robert.
It's being said somewhat with tongue in cheek here, but it is indeed being noted that Bush will now be the only likely candidate in 1988 with ``experience'' in the presidency.
His performance while the President was undergoing surgery -- after Mr. Reagan had signed the letter authorizing the shift of power to his vice-president -- was under intense scrutiny here. And except for some speculation that White House chief of staff Donald Regan had elbowed him out a bit (which Bush denies), the verdict of observers here -- both in government and in the media -- was that Bush did what he had to do with poise and with no unseemly effort to try to attract attention to himself.
Actually, by walking this line -- of possessing presidential power but not flaunting it -- Bush was being very much himself. He has shown all along as a vice-president this same sensitivity to what his job does and does not entail. Unlike a Spiro Agnew, for example, who sometimes saw himself in rather grand terms, George Bush has always viewed the vice-presidency as requiring as much invisibility as possible.
Thus, the man who has doubtless become the strongest vice-president in history, even more so than Walter Mondale, has been able to keep a very low profile.
He meets privately for lunch with the President once a week. And he sees Mr. Reagan every morning. Beyond that, there are rather frequent social get-togethers between the Reagans and the Bushes.
Out of this exceedingly close Reagan-Bush relationship comes a vice-president well positioned to give advice to the President, when asked. And he does -- on all subjects, foreign and domestic. Further, Bush is of inestimable help to the President in dealing with Congress, both in shaping legislative programs and in helping to get Reagan initiatives approved.
But you won't hear of Bush's great influence on the President from the vice-president -- nor from those who work for him. In fact, it is one of the better-kept secrets in this city.
So it was not too difficult for the vice-president to avoid the pitfall of acting too important or being too assertive when the President asked his friend to take over.
That has been Bush's style all along.
And now -- after a flurry of interviews he granted to disclose his feelings and views during his brush with the presidency -- the vice-president hopes to sink back once again into relative anonymity. But this may not be possible. The voters are looking at him hard now, and his adversaries are getting jumpy, even advancing their preparations for 1988.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.