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Bush and '88

It shouldn't be surprising that George Bush is getting a lot of extraordinary attention these days. If the Reagan-Bush team is reelected tomorrow, Bush returns to Washington as more than just the nation's vice-president. By title, he's first in line for presidential succession. By tradition, he must be considered a front-runner for 1988.

For just such reasons, the ''new'' George Bush is baffling a lot of reporters and politicians who have known him through the years. The ''old'' George Bush was consistently civil in his comments, even about his political opponents.

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Someone must have told him, as Leo Durocher put it, ''Nice guys finish last.'' His eye on the 1988 presidential nomination, Mr. Bush seems out to make sure that when he takes on Jack Kemp four years from now he won't be cast as the ''wimp'' while Mr. Kemp, the former pro-football quarterback, becomes the macho candidate.

It is a sad commentary on the political world that a man of substance and character should try to fool around with his image. His TV advisers have probably told Bush he must do this. Bush would have us believe that his recent ''locker room'' talk is quite common around his house. Columnist Russell Baker put it just right when he said, ''Sorry, George,'' he just couldn't believe it. Neither can I.

There's a real irony in all this, too. Kemp, the fellow who frequented locker rooms for years, doesn't indulge in rough talk, at least not in his conversations with voters and the press. Kemp is much more likely, wherever you find him, to talk economics. He'll give you several paragraphs - maybe two or three pages - of supply-side economics at the drop of a ''hello.''

If Kemp is out to prove anything, it is that a football player can be bright as well as famous. And he's been delivering a very credible performance. He isn't really trying to change his image. Instead, he's merely attempting to make certain that his intelligence, which has always been there, becomes visible.

Actually, Bush is an excellent athlete, even though he isn't, like Kemp, at the ''world class'' level. At Yale Bush starred in baseball. He's tall and fit and doubtless could find some event where he could best Kemp.

But who cares? Kemp is the darling of the conservatives because of his ideology. Bush won't cut into that support with rough language.The premier politician of our day is obviously Ronald Reagan, who moves comfortably among athletes but is more likely to say ''Aw shucks'' than utter even the mildest oath.

Bush does seem to be trying to prove something these days. And he really doesn't need to. He's intelligent. His job-experience record is one that any opponent would have to envy. A man like that should, you would think, be poised. Yet, as some wag said about Bush's overeager-ness at the start of the Bush-Ferraro debate, ''George looked like he was about to jump out of his pants.''

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The polls still gave Bush the edge on that debate on the basis of his knowledgeability of foreign affairs. But he didn't always display the sure-footedness and calmness the voters will be looking for in 1988. He did help himself a little. But then he hurt himself a lot by his unpardonable comment the next day about what he had done to Representative Ferraro.

Geraldine Ferraro, in debate, certainly kept her cool, and probably helped herself. But the big question now hovering over this election is whether she is, indeed, helping the ticket. At first, she did help - providing excitement and interest at the convention. But since then her need to explain her personal financial status slowed down her campaign.

And now Democratic leaders concede that Ms. Ferraro has become a negative. A lot of Democrats who would normally ''come home'' to the party and tighten the race simply aren't doing so because of Ferraro. Too many Democratic wives have decided that she isn't the person they want in a position where she might become president. They find her ''too tough'' for them.

It's another irony. Bush wants to look tougher. And Ferraro may be having trouble because many voters see her as too tough.

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