GEORGE BUSH's stature as a candidate has been visibly growing this week, as did Michael Dukakis's a month ago in Atlanta. Conventions do that for candidates. President Reagan cannot set his own leadership mantle on his vice-president. But he can help: He can make room for Mr. Bush at the podium, praise him, and then exit the stage, setting Bush up as the next Republican champion. Mr. Reagan did that last night in New Orleans.
Reagan himself was a natural heir of the Goldwater conservative movement. Themes of a militarily strong America, a less taxed and less regulated economy, were put into action over the past eight years with considerable success: lower inflation, more jobs, arms agreements, the heading off of protectionist legislation. The minuses were not minor: a Grand Canyon-size deficit opened; the Iran-contra affair exposed muddled management, with Bush's role still not clear.
Nonetheless, the GOP feels this week that with Reagan as campaigner and incumbent, it has had a winning season. Now it is up to George Bush to take the mound.
Whatever the talk about Bush's making his way in public life by appointment rather than by electoral victory, Bush has earned this starting job. He in effect won the vice-presidency by coming in second to Reagan in 1980. And he defeated beyond question all rivals this spring.
Bush's political approach, however, does lean heavily on personal relationships, whereas Reagan's was rooted in ideological affinity. Bush courted favor with Texas luminaries, such as Lyndon Johnson, Washington's mighty, such as Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. His cultivation of relationships is not always self-serving. He is known to send notes of thanks to late-working secretaries, to invite staff families to functions where they can share the limelight briefly.
As a one-on-one communicator, Bush contrasts with the mass communicator, Reagan. Bush made his way upward through inside channels - CIA chief, United Nations ambassador. Reagan challenged the establishment - the moderates in his party, the Democratic majority in Washington. Reagan set the terms of the contest. Whether Bush will seize the initiative in this fall's campaign has yet to be shown. His party has been trying to set the stage for both a more personable Bush and a more aggressive stance.
This week the GOP is deriding the Dukakis ``Massachusetts miracle.'' The naming of a running mate later in the week will complete the lineup. Any of several candidates would do.
But it will come down to whether voters feel more comfortable with George Bush than with Michael Dukakis. Will Bush signal the greater composure under pressure? Has Bush a vision?
Ronald Reagan compromised - with Congress, or Moscow - only when he chose to. When he was shot, he joked, and a nation suddenly felt relieved. Bush has yet to show either the attention-commanding or the confidence-inspiring qualities of a Reagan.
Thursday night, at his acceptance speech, Bush will have to put comparisons behind him. He will want to stand on the Reagan record his party praised this week. But as the party standard-bearer, he will stand alone.