THE South Carolina primary in March was only days away. Under considerable pressure in a state dependent on the textile industry, George Bush took a stand against a pending bill that would have restricted textile imports. He stuck to the administration's position that the bill was overly protectionist. But in Kingsburg, Calif., in September, the vice-president broke with the Reagan administration and endorsed the trade complaint of the Rice Millers' Association against Japan, which bars foreign-grown rice. Two of the nation's largest rice-growing states are politically critical Texas and California.
As can be seen, Mr. Bush is walking a careful path through the political mine fields of trade.
Bush's trade philosophy differs little from that of President Reagan. He advocates ``fair but free trade,'' maintaining that foreign countries must make reciprocal commitments to opening their borders to American products if they are to have access to US markets.
At the same time, many foreign trade interests are already getting their foot in the door with a prospective Bush administration. The CBS News show ``60 Minutes'' reported that the Bush campaign has at least 10 staff members who are also registered agents for foreign governments or commercial interests.
The Bush people deny that this indicates foreign interests will have any undue influence on the government. ``The vice-president is a person of high standards in government, and I am sure he would enforce them rigorously,'' says Robert Zoellick, Bush's issues director.
(``60 Minutes'' reported that the Dukakis campaign has its share of foreign agents, as well.)
Bush trade advisers would like to see more bilateral pacts like the recent US-Canada Free Trade Agreement, or ``minilateral'' agreements with small groups of nations. Such agreements, in addition to having their own merits, could be used to press for larger market openings negotiated under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
Even with market openings, the Bush program counts on the dollar remaining relatively weak. One of Bush's advisers, Martin Feldstein, a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, believes the dollar is still overvalued.
But any change in the dollar's value under Bush would likely be gradual, given the expected influence of former Treasury Secretary James Baker III, who almost certainly would occupy a top post in a Bush administration.
A Bush administration would also continue the policy of economic and currency coordination with America's trading partners. ``It remains difficult to separate trade policy from international economic relations,'' Mr. Zoellick says.
The Bush camp is still vague on some trade issues. For example, one of the first trade decisions the new president must make is whether to extend the Voluntary Restraint Agreement on steel imports. Although US consumers of steel are opposed to the VRA because it is causing shortages, Zoellick says the current agreement has worked well. Without a restraining agreement, he adds, the Japanese and Europeans have resorted to dumping in the past. But Zoellick says no decision has been made on the steel VRA. The same is true of sugar quotas.
Bush would not halt foreign investment in the United States, since he believes the new jobs and technology foreign companies bring with them is more important than the loss of control over the investment.