THE day after the New Hampshire primary there was an interesting irony in the Bush reelection camp: An internal battle was waging over how to fight the external battle against Pat Buchanan.
Was it time for the president to attack the man many Bush people see as an "upstart an opponent with insufficient credentials to run for president? The attack "hawks" among George Bush's advisers seemed to be winning out.
And the president was talking as though he would take Mr. Buchanan on. He would "define" him. There would be no more "free ride." He seemed bent on cutting up his rival for the Republican presidential nomination.
On that same day, following the vote in New Hampshire, I called Peter Teeley, a valued associate of the president's and found him opposed to this emerging attack strategy. Mr. Teeley, who for years was at Mr. Bush's side as his top press aide, now works outside the administration. But he remains close to the president - someone Bush turns to for advice.
Teeley branded as wrongheaded the apparent decision to have the president take on Buchanan all over the United States in an extensive heads-butting exercise.
He said the president should remain in Washington and "not come down" to Buchanan. He saw Buchanan as having had his moment in the sun in New Hampshire. Bush, he said, would merely extend the life of the Buchanan campaign by jumping in now and mixing it up with his challenger.
Teeley and, perhaps, others apparently expressed this view to the president because the next day a story emanated from the White House that the political strategists were "rethinking" their position. They seemed to be pulling back from their all-court press against Buchanan to something less aggressive.
Two days later the chief damage-control operative in the Republican National Committee, Charles Black, was in for a Monitor breakfast. The room was packed with reporters anxious for him to explain what Bush's campaign strategy really was going to be.
Mr. Black's response on the subject was none too precise. The president, he said, would take on Buchanan on the issues. "How hard would he hit him?" reporters asked, again and again. Black didn't seem to be sure: He said that he thought Bush's tactics would depend on the emerging circumstances. He said the Bush approach could be described as "flexible." Apparently the controversy over Bush's campaign strategy was still raging in the White House.
But it still seemed to me that Teeley and others had been able to prevail on the president to abandon the attack-dog role, at least for the present. The Bush strategy, however, remained murky.
For example, the Washington Post, reporting on a Bush speech in Charleston, S.C., saw the presidential rhetoric as turning harsh, suggesting that Buchanan's trade policies are "naive and defeatist," amounting to a "cut-and-run" abandonment of "the American can-do spirit."
But, reporting on that same speech, a New York Times article was headlined: "Bush Hits All Targets Except His Challenger.He barely gave a rhetorical nod" to Buchanan, the reporter tells us.
So even those right on the scene with the Bush campaign cannot as yet agree on whether the president is going to be a hawk or a dove or something in between in his treatment of Buchanan.
My own judgment is that the president's policy of hitting Buchanan hard all across the country, announced by Bush himself only a few hours after the New Hampshire vote was history, has been modified. Bush had then talked as if he would be going into every primary state, battling Buchanan toe to toe. It sounded as though he would be on the road almost all the time.
Now - and I think Teeley helped here - Bush seems likely to cut down on his campaign road trips considerably. Black expects him to go into about half of the remaining primary states.
It seems that Bush is trying not to bang heads with Buchanan personally but, instead, to let surrogates like Vice President Dan Quayle, Rep. Newt Gingrich, Sen. Phil Gramm, and Black - together with TV ads - do the job.
The president seems bent on staying, personally, on higher ground - pointing out how he differs from his opponent on the issues but avoiding the use of Buchanan's name wherever possible. We'll have to see how that works out. Let Buchanan actually start to win some primaries and this contest might well turn really ugly - although it is already moving in that direction.
But Bush knows he has to be careful in his treatment of Buchanan. If he gets too nasty with his opponent he might lose the support in November's general election of many conservatives who now back Buchanan. Teeley stressed that point, too, conveying a view that apparently got the attention of Mr. Bush.