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Bush plays 'answer man' in Oregon

Vice-President George Bush, traveling along the West Coast, has found friendly supporters and approving crowds. The one surprise was in a meeting hall in downtown Portland, where critics peppered him with some of the sharpest questions of the political campaign.

Outside the Masonic Temple, where the ''Ask George Bush'' forum was held, feminist and peace groups carried protest signs. Inside, questioners challenged the Reagan-Bush policies on everything from nuclear weapons and Central America to poverty.

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Although the vice-president discovered upon arrival that a poll shows the Reagan-Bush ticket ahead by 10 percent in the state, the tough questioning is a sign that Oregon is one of the battlegrounds of the election. Joblessness is still at 9 percent, and the nuclear freeze movement has wide support here.

Standing in the middle of the audience, Mr. Bush energetically defended the administration. To a man who asked about the Reagan administration's hard line toward the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, he countered that ''they have no respect for human rights'' and maintain the largest standing army in Central America. He then showed the questioner a commemorative stamp from Nicaragua that he carries around with him. ''Who's on it?'' Bush asked rhetorically. ''The Communist Manifesto on the cover. Who's the stamp about? It's Karl Marx.''

When a nutritionist challenged the vice-president on hunger in the United States, saying that many persons in Oregon had sought emergency food last year, Bush said, ''The social safety net should be firm, and it is,'' adding that food stamps and other programs are up, even if they are not as high as they might have been under a Democratic administration. The most important issue of the presidential campaign, he declared, is ''how people feel about the economy,'' he said. ''There's new hope, new optimism out there.''

But toward the end of the session, with tensions mounting, members of the audience began to complain aloud that the vice-president had called only on men. ''Call on a woman,'' came a spontaneous cry from the crowd when an organizer announced there would be only one more question.

The final questioner was prepared with a long list of concerns about nuclear war. ''Our policy is that a nuclear war is not winnable,'' the vice-president told her.

Earlier, in San Francisco, Bush welcomed what he saw as a ''positive'' signal from Soviet President Chernenko, given in an interview with the Moscow correspondent of the Washington Post. ''What is important in the Chernenko interview is the tone of his rhetoric,'' said the vice-president. ''The tone was not confrontational, and there will be a balanced United States response to it.''

''Where all of this leads us we don't know. But I think that it's a signal of some importance, and the Reagan administration accepts it at face value and with sincerity.''

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