THE ``McLaughlin Group'' TV panel show is more like mud wrestling than a journalistic exercise. But recently its participants certainly got it right when they concluded that Vice-President George Bush was the big winner in the Iran-contra hearings. The vice-president has been revivified by Oliver North's description of Mr. Bush's heroism - the bravery he displayed in sitting down with armed Salvadorean generals in El Salvador and telling them that ``death squads'' must go or the United States would be cutting them loose.
If there was any substantial perception that Bush was a wimp (and there has been an effort in some of the news media and among some politicians to paint that picture), it was gone with Colonel North's words. Those millions who were on their feet cheering for Ollie were now cheering for George.
So hearings that were supposed to have been destined to keep an uncertain Bush presidential campaign on the downslide have done just the opposite. The vice-president is once again holding a commanding lead over others seeking the nomination. Polls coming up are expected to increase the spread between him and his nearest opponent, Sen. Robert Dole.
It would be precipitate at this time to forecast that Bush will be nominated next summer. Yet relatively recent history would back up such an assumption. Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and Walter Mondale were all vice-presidents who were able to withstand strong challenges and gain the No. 1 spot on their party's ticket.
Bush's appeal to moderates is difficult to understand - but it has always been there.
He's an old-time, pay-as-you-go, Jerry Ford-style conservative, and he has always called for firmness in dealing with the Soviets. But it's Bush's tone - always reasonable, never strident - that is found acceptable by those who regard themselves as being in the party's moderate center.
George Bush's most visible quality is loyalty. He's been steadfastly supportive of the President during his recent dark days. And he's paid politically for it. He had been just as loyal to North. And he had been told he would have to pay for that, too. Not so, of course. Loyalty has paid off handsomely for Bush in the North utterances.
The real story of this emerging presidential campaign is that Bush has shown how politically shrewd he is by ignoring some very bad advice. He has been told, again and again, that he must separate himself from President Reagan if he is to succeed in his presidential quest.
But he knows that a vice-president who abandons the president - after publicly avowing his loyalty to this same chief executive while taking the No. 2 spot - has always been viewed, and rightly so, as thankless.
Bush and Mr. Reagan are firm friends. Bush believes in friends sticking together, through thick and through thin. And he's not about to leave Reagan in the ``thin,'' just when the President needs him most.
Bush is a shrewd politician, too, a man who has held many types of high government offices.
He can read polls that show Reagan retaining, relatively speaking, a high popularity rating right in the midst of this Iran-contra problem period. He foresees that Reagan will be moving up again in public favor as the hearings come to an end.
Indeed, he is expecting - and rightly so - that no Republican convention is going to select a nominee for the fall who isn't perceived, within the party, as a full-fledged ``Reagan man.''
Further, Bush is expecting that the current dark clouds will go away - and that Reagan's presidency will be looking a lot better: enough so that the public will be ready for more of the same. Bush then will be telling the voters he will be doing it his way - but that they will indeed be getting more of the same.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.