A new private poll has found that Vice-President George Bush has a strong lead, but also some serious weaknesses, as he gears up his probable 1988 campaign for the White House. The vice-president appears to be far ahead of his closest potential GOP rivals -- Robert Dole, Howard H. Baker Jr., Jack Kemp, and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick.
However, a significant number of American voters complain that Mr. Bush is ``wishy-washy,'' ``not aggressive enough,'' or ``a rubber stamp for President Reagan.''
These perceptions hurt Bush when the public looks at him as a potential president.
The poll, conducted by Robert Teeter of Market Opinion Research, concludes:
``One of the largest gaps between Bush and Reagan is on leadership. [This] is one reason that Reagan is more popular than Bush.''
This public perception of weakness, and lack of leadership qualities, ``could dog [Bush] when the campaign gets under way,'' the study warns.
The Teeter study has raised a minor storm here because it was sponsored in part by the Republican National Committee (RNC), which is supposed to remain neutral toward the various GOP contenders. The study cost an estimated $75,000. But RNC officials insist that the committee is paying for only those parts of the poll that relate directly to RNC business. Parts dealing with the vice-president's campaign are to be paid for by Bush's political-action committee, the Fund for America's Future.
This explanation has hardly mollified Bush's 1988 rivals. Senator Dole of Kansas groused: ``I didn't know that the RNC had become a Bush headquarters.'' James Cannon, an aide to former Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, complained it was a ``slam dunk'' violation of federal election law.
One reason some Republicans sizzled over this poll was that it included direct political questions comparing Bush with his potential rivals.
Among the total electorate (Republicans, Democrats, and independents) the preference was: Bush, 58 percent; Baker, 12 percent; Dole, 10 percent; Rep. Jack Kemp (R) of New York, 8 percent; and former UN Ambassador Kirkpatrick, 7 percent. The poll also pitted Bush against three potential rivals from the Democratic Party. It found:
Bush, 51 percent; Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, 45 percent; undecided, 4 percent.
Bush, 50 percent; Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, 45 percent; undecided, 5 percent.
Bush, 49 percent; Chrysler president Lee Iacocca, 43 percent; undecided, 7 percent.
The survey further tried to single out the Democrats' front-runner. Among four possibles named, it found: Mr. Kennedy, 44 percent; Mr. Hart, 22 percent; New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, 18 percent; Mr. Iacocca, 14 percent.
The poll found Bush strongest among GOP partisans, Southerners, voters over 55, and people with incomes ofmore than $40,000, and weakest among white Democrats, blacks, Jews, and residents of mid-Atlantic states.
One revealing result was that Reagan appears significantly stronger than Bush among those who are young and Republican. It is these youthful voters who have reversed a 50-year decline in Republican Party fortunes, and who helped Reagan achieve his landslide victory in 1984. Bush needs desperately to win this group over if he expects to win the nomination.
Young Republicans favor Reagan for three reasons. They trust him more than Bush. They think he is a stronger leader. And they think he can deal better with the Soviets. This points ``to a need for Bush to develop a stronger personal image,'' the study concludes.
The study found, however, that Americans generally have a ``warm'' feeling about Bush, partly because of his close association with Reagan, who is extremely popular.
When pitted against 20 other leading public figures, Bush comes out ahead of all but Reagan, Iacocca, Kirkpatrick, and Baker. One reason for this is that Bush is simply better known than other potential runners. The poll cautions that this will change as the '88 campaign heats up and his rivals begin running in earnest.