IF a front-runner holds his ground against all comers, as Vice-President George Bush did Wednesday night at the Republican presidential forum in Houston, he can be said to have scored a win. If such a televised session can give voters a fair idea of where a gaggle of candidates are coming from, maintain some humor, and keep the candidates from waxing too self-promotional - all without boring the public unduly - it too can be said to have scored a victory. Co-hosts William Buckley, a Republican, and Robert Strauss, a Democrat, deserve praise for their serious questioning about important leadership matters, while twitting the candidates just enough to penetrate their protective campaign armor.
But it's still a long road to the nomination.
At the moment, the six GOP candidates fall into three groups. There are first the candidates of present experience, Mr. Bush and Senate minority leader Robert Dole. They are Washington establishment figures. Bush is emphasizing the issue of education, his loyalty to Ronald Reagan; he is trying to appear less defensive, more aggressive. Mr. Dole wants to establish himself as a Senate leader, a man comfortable as a political power broker but one who remembers hard times back in Kansas and during the war, a man who has made mistakes and wants to show compassion, one who wants to include minorities, women, and others who may feel excluded from the Grand Old Party.
Then there are Jack Kemp and Pat Robertson - optimists, highly prepared with facts, figures, and theories, who talk about family values. Mr. Kemp as a former football quarterback and Mr. Robertson as a TV preacher have a natural populist flair. They are different. Kemp is an engagingly theoretical speaker who can go a whole hour as if it were a last-ditch two-minute drill on the playing field. Robertson smiles continually, whether talking about a need to end abortion so there will be enough workers around in the next century to save social security, or lamenting a national moral wasteland.
Of the two remaining candidates, Alexander Haig represents Washington experience of a different kind, as an aide to seven Presidents - with a butler's-eye view of the agonies of power and a general's training in command decision.
And former Delaware Gov. Pierre duPont comes across as the maverick, leading the attack on Bush, warning of the imminent demise of the social security system, offering programs like an education voucher system. Like Bruce Babbitt on the Democratic side, Mr. duPont appears to have to take greater risks to distinguish himself among the better-knowns in the pack.
The GOP lineup is set - unlike the Democratic race, where names like Sam Nunn and Mario Cuomo are still mentioned, as if implying that the present lineup is incomplete or lacking stature.
At this point, the Republicans are addressing their own constituencies, not the nation as a whole. They are all against taxes and abortion and for Ronald Reagan. Tension is evident among them about the budget deficit. This subject and the President's arms control policies are likely to lead to the sharpest divisions as the race progresses.
So for the first time we've seen all the 1988 GOP candidates together on one platform. It is a diverse and ambitious enough group to suggest the fight for a berth on the GOP team could prove every bit as rough as the big game against the Democrats next fall.