George & Gerry Square Off

updated 10/15/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/15/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

They share second billing below their parties' champions, but the classic matching of Geraldine Ferraro and George Bush is turning into a first-rate contest. Beyond the obvious difference of gender and the historical novelty of a woman running on a major party ticket for the Vice-Presidency, this is a clash of styles that should reach its climax in this Thursday's nationally televised debate. In background, politics, experience and personality, the two No. 2s are sharply diverse. She is an Italian-American of working-class parents, who held no higher office than that of assistant district attorney before her dramatic rise through the Democratic ranks of Congress. He is the scion of an old-moneyed line of East Coast WASPs, who made a fortune in oil before embarking on an illustrious public career.

Slicing through each other's air lanes, yet never meeting face to face until this week's TV duel, the pair are staging a spectacle for connoisseurs of combative politics. It resembles one of those gladiatorial set-tos arranged for the amusement of Rome's ancient emperors: Ferraro is armed with a short sword and seeks a hot-blooded encounter at close quarters; Bush wields a trident and net and so must stay at long range, waiting patiently for his opponent's error.

Ferraro runs a scrappy, quip-witted campaign. She draws enthusiastic crowds and equally emotional hecklers. Bush is favored as a potential President by 61 percent over Ferraro's 33 percent in a recent poll and is eager to avoid any infighting that might lead to an upset. He keeps his distance, trading heavily on the aura of the Presidency. She warms to the camera, speaking in a high-speed stream of New Yorkese.

Two other factors add importance to this campaign: Because Ronald Reagan is 73, Bush is receiving added scrutiny as a man who may inherit the Presidency; Ferraro, who does not generate that actuarial interest, represents the first major test of a gender-balanced ticket. PEOPLE correspondents went on the road with the two candidates to file these campaign reports.

At Last, The Bandwagon Starts to Roll

Geraldine Ferraro stood on the brick-and-concrete campus of the University of Texas at Arlington and tried to talk about nuclear-arms control, but the hecklers drowned her out. "Ba-by Kill-er! Ba-by Kill-er! Ba-by Kill-er!" chanted a mob of antiabortion demonstrators, some of them carrying pictures of dead fetuses. A group of Reagan supporters, armed with official Republican campaign placards, joined the heckling, yelling, "Four more years! Four more years!" At that, Ferraro's supporters, who outnumbered the protesters, started a defensive chant of their own: "Ger-ry! Ger-ry! Ger-ry!" The din was too loud for anything as fragile as rational discussion. Texas Gov. Mark White rose from his seat on the platform to gesture for quiet, but Ferraro was not interested in playing damsel in distress for a male politician. Instead, she motioned White to sit down and tried to disarm the hecklers with a joke. "You're wonderful," she said. "You've finally figured out how to stop this New Yorker from talking too fast."

That crack earned her the time to deliver a few more sentences of her speech. She used the opportunity to reflect on recent deaths in Beirut and fears that Reagan Administration policy might lead to the wide use of American troops in Central American conflict. "My son, John, would be proud to defend this country, and I'd be proud, though worried, to have him do so. But like every mother in this country," she said, "I did not raise my son to die in an unnamed war against an unnamed enemy."

Her attack on their hero set the hecklers off again, and they tried to overpower Ferraro's dissent with a chant of "Rea-gan! Rea-gan!" As the chanting and the booing grew louder and nastier, Governor White stood up and walked to Ferraro's side. Intent on fighting her own battles, she again waved him back to his seat. "If I had a record like Ronald Reagan's," she told the crowd, "I wouldn't want anybody to hear about it either."

After a tough summer Geraldine Ferraro is fighting back. With courage, wit and tenacity she is proving that she can take it—and dish it out. In August she spent two painful weeks fighting allegations of irregularities in her family's finances and records, impressing even critics with her candor and her coolness under fire. Then, just as she began to rebuild the shattered momentum of her campaign, she found herself embroiled in another unwanted controversy: Archbishop John J. O'Connor of New York publicly berated her for deviating from the church's dogma on abortion. Meanwhile, devastating public opinion polls revealed that the Mondale-Ferraro ticket was trailing Reagan-Bush nearly everywhere and by a margin of 26 percent against 54 percent. "This has been the toughest fight every day since July," Ferraro told the crowd at an open-air rally of city workers in Minneapolis. "I tell you, this Democrat has been tested."

For a while Ferraro seemed in danger of failing that test. She sometimes seemed lackluster and unemotional on the stump. Reporters who followed her full-time began to speculate that her problems had perhaps left her too battered to battle back. But suddenly, in the midst of an exhausting four-day cross-country campaign tour in late September, she bounced out of her slump. "I'm finally hitting my stride," she said on her campaign plane after outdueling the University of Texas hecklers. "I don't know why I was better today. It may be the prosecutor in me. I seem to respond to audiences. I've always enjoyed a challenge, and I enjoyed giving that speech."

No doubt. But only a masochist could possibly have enjoyed the entire trip. At nearly every stop Ferraro was subjected to abusive heckling by "right-to-life" groups opposed to her stand on the issue (she personally opposes abortion but supports a woman's legal right to choose one). The chants of "Ba-by Kill-er!" have often been accompanied by the cruelest of placards: "Ferraro and Hitler—Baby Killers," read one; another showed three tombstones and the caption "Gerry's Kids." The heckling she receives may be the most tasteless taunting of a national candidate since 1967, when antiwar protesters greeted Lyndon Johnson with chants of "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" Ferraro keeps battling and shrugs off the heckling. "I guess people are doing what they have a right to do," she says. "They are expressing their views, and that's what this country is all about."

Although the taunting has stung Ferraro, she did feel good about capturing the crowds and settling once again into a comfortable relationship with the press. In St. Paul one of the protesters outside attacked an NBC cameraman. A sound man punched the protester, giving him a bloody nose and collecting a black eye in return. Later, on her campaign plane, Ferraro theatrically applied an ice pack to the sound man's shiner. "My hero," she said with a grin.

The plane, a cramped and uncomfortable DC-9, has become Ferraro's place of refuge from the pressures of the grueling campaign. Between appearances she sometimes stretches out across three seats and snoozes, her head cradled in her husband's lap. Her family, she says, provides an emotional foundation. Husband John has been traveling with her throughout the campaign. "This may sound strange, but I don't feel emotionally drained," she says. "I deal with one set of problems at a time. Frankly, we've gone through a lot. Our family is always close, but my kids, my husband and I have gotten closer—if that is possible."

For the last stop of one campaign week, Ferraro was in Santa Ana, Calif. addressing a crowd in a union hall—exactly the kind of audience that Ferraro and Mondale must win: traditional blue-collar Democrats. She left the podium to a rousing ovation and then suddenly returned to the microphone. "All week long I've been talking about the issue of war and peace and the need for a negotiated arms agreement," she said. "Am I right? Are we on the right track?"

The crowd responded with another, louder ovation. In the car, as she headed to the airport, she could still hear the chanting, "Ger-ry! Ger-ry! Ger-ry!"

The Bush Approach: Accentuate the Positive

Former bomber pilot George Bush's campaign style shares the characteristics of the Stealth bomber, whose production he endorses. He comes in fast and low-key, accomplishes his mission of rallying Reagan-Bush supporters and ghosts away without appearing on enemy radar screens or arousing undue attention in the press.

Ever the loyal sidekick, Bush, 60, is anxious to avoid any mistake that might upstage or embarrass his highly reelectable boss, and that means keeping the press at arm's length. Alone among the four candidates, Bush does not permit a pool of newspeople to fly with him. Instead he gives at least two brief press conferences a day, at which he skillfully deflects troublesome questions. On the Tarmac in Atlanta recently he was ambushed under the wing of Air Force Two by reporters who wanted him to clarify his views on abortion. (He once favored federally funded abortions in exceptional cases, but now supports Reagan's antiabortion policy.) "You guys are a pack," Bush chided. "Don't go with these controversial things that are designed to divide." Next morning Bush was greeted with a flurry of wolf-pack howls from his frustrated press entourage, but thereafter Press Secretary Peter Teeley canceled wing privileges.

Though he dares to be dull as a campaigner, Bush excels as the President's bearer of glad tidings. He preaches the good news. "It's a tough time out there for pessimists," he said, during a campaign swing up the Eastern seaboard from Miami to Maine. "People are saying, 'Yes, we're better off than we were four years ago, and we're going to be better off tomorrow.' That's why America is so upbeat, and that is why Ronald Reagan is so strong."

George Bush—naval hero, Texas congressman, UN ambassador, envoy to China, CIA chief, team player—serves as an articulate emissary for Ronald Reagan. Bush is the Stradivarius of second fiddles whose loyalty to Reagan, his adversary in 1980 Republican primaries, has paved his way into the President's confidence. In his campaign travels across the country Bush appears as Reagan's surrogate, no mere candidate but a deputy leader entitled to the pomp and panoply of an incumbent President.

The Bush road show is not burdened by the disorganization, staff upheavals and controversies that detoured the fledgling Ferraro campaign for so long. Bush's itinerary is carefully orchestrated by an expert White House staff and cushioned by generous funds from the Reagan-Bush Reelection Campaign Committee. Each day a schedule is distributed, minutely detailing activities as well as dress codes (business suits for men, day dresses for women).

Bush travels with an entourage of advisers, aides, Secret Service agents and his personal physician. His wife, Barbara, 59, is frequently at his side occupying his private compartment aboard the vice-presidential 707. While he pores over briefing papers, she needlepoints purses for her daughter and four daughters-in-law. At each stop Bush transfers to the armored limousine that is usually flown in to await him. It was hard to miss his arrival in downtown Miami three weeks ago: The 18-car convoy included an ambulance and a Secret Service SWAT team with a helicopter floating protectively overhead. At the first stop Bush was to make a nonpartisan address to 9,706 new citizens, most of them Cuban-Americans. Preppy from top to toe in a gray pinstripe suit, blue shirt, red tie, green-and-navy watch-band, the VP stepped to the podium. "Bienvenidos a su pais" he said with a slight Texas inflection. "Welcome to your country!" The crowd was in his palm, stomping and chanting, "Freedom! Freedom!"

As this campaign week unfolded Bush grew increasingly impassioned as he proclaimed the party line. At a state convention in Columbus, Ohio he brandished his wallet before a crowd of 3,500. "One good reason Ronald Reagan is going to get reelected," he said, "is because he's putting something in here instead of taking something out."

In Brattleboro, Vt. Bush was confronted by hecklers who were noisily backing a nuclear freeze. Among the crowd of some 3,000, fewer than 200 waved placards spouting "Bonzo Is a Better Choice" and "Arms Are for Embracing." Without acknowledging the hecklers' jeers, Bush shouted a shortened version of his prepared peace-through-strength epistle to the chants of "No More Years." Afterward at a press conference, when one correspondent indicated that the Vermont scene did not seem entirely "upbeat," Bush was blasé. "I detected nothing but optimism except for a handful of people doing their own thing," he said. "That's the American way."

Despite Bush's aloofness with the press, he is genuinely popular with many reporters who regard him as bright, decent and thoughtful. He is described as a man without malice, with a taste for off-color humor and a habit of sending dozens of personal thank you notes each week. Also appealing is his punctilious refusal to exploit the '84 campaign to advance his own claim to the Presidency in 1988. "He is an atypical politician in that he is not obsessed with power," says Johnny Carson's head writer, Ray Siller, who also writes for Bush. "He could walk away from the job."

For the present, Bush seems content to play the perfect understudy, giving no hint of any overwhelming ambition to succeed Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office. In George Bush's gentlemanly world, one must always be ready, yet never frazzled or overanxious in pursuit of a goal. In that spirit perhaps, Bush suspended the rigors of the hustings for a weekend at his Kennebunkport, Maine compound. "Don't tell the press," he confided in Bangor, "but we're going to put our feet up and count our blessings."

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