Quayle question haunts the GOP--again Bush's illness puts vice president at risk

May 06, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

CLEVELAND -- President Quayle.

Those words, stamped on thousands of Democratic campaign buttons in 1988, were calculated to frighten voters away from the Bush-Quayle ticket.

This weekend, doubts and fears about Dan Quayle's qualifications to be president returned with a vengeance when President Bush was unexpectedly hospitalized with a heart ailment.

The political problem for Mr. Bush, which stems from the public's low esteem for his vice president, has suddenly escalated, as most Americans ponder for the first time whether the president's health might prevent him from serving out two full terms.

Interviews with political analysts and elected officials gathering here for the Democratic Leadership Council's annual convention suggest that Mr. Bush's heart problem poses at most a minor threat to his re-election chances, at least for the moment.

But there is heightened speculation about whether this latest turn of events has increased the odds that Mr. Quayle will be dumped from the 1992 Republican ticket.

The snap judgment, as cynically expressed in Washington and perhaps elsewhere this weekend, was that unless Mr. Bush dies, Mr. Quayle already has been dumped, politically speaking.

"He's out of there," predicted one conservative Republican who has been a Quayle associate.

The more measured view of experienced Republican politicians is that Mr. Bush is unlikely to admit that his original selection of Mr. Quayle was a mistake and, therefore, Mr. Quayle's spot on the ticket remains secure so long as Mr. Bush's re-election is not in serious jeopardy.

Meantime, the Quayle factor is virtually certain to remain a major component of the national political debate, especially since the vice president seems helpless to improve his unusually weak image.

Only the week before Mr. Bush was hospitalized, a nationwide poll asked Americans whether he was qualified to be president, if something were to happen to Mr. Bush.

Fully two-thirds (66 percent) of those questioned, including a majority of Republicans and independents, judged Mr. Quayle unfit for the presidency, according to the April 24 survey, conducted by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman for Cable News Network and Time magazine. Fewer than one in five (19 percent) thought him qualified.

With the sudden onset of medical problems for Mr. Bush, until now an apparently healthy and highly athletic 66-year-old, political experts say the Quayle factor has joined the economy as the pre-eminent worry of Republican campaign strategists.

"Even if nothing more happens to Bush's health, it's there," said Kevin Phillips, a Republican analyst. "Any recurrence or further medical complication would triple or quadruple the Quayle problem, because he just hasn't been able to make people think of him as a president."

For Mr. Quayle, currently embarked on a slow, long-range plan to dig out of his political hole in time for a likely 1996 presidential bid, Mr. Bush's illness may represent the worst possible turn of events.

The apparently mild nature of the medical problem makes it unlikely that Mr. Quayle would assume any of Mr. Bush's duties for a significant period of time and thus, potentially, persuade the nation that it has misjudged him. The 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan gave Mr. Bush just such an opportunity as vice president.

"There will be a lot of pressure from a lot of difference sources on the president to dump Dan Quayle," said Eddie Mahe, a GOP consultant.

In Washington, Quayle spokesman David Beckwith said speculation that the president's illness would bring any such pressure was "wrong, wrong, wrong. I challenge you to produce any Republican who on the record will say that Quayle ought to be dumped. The only people who want him off are Democrats or wannabe Democrats."

The bitter irony in all this for Mr. Quayle and his supporters is that the vice president had only recently managed to mute some of the doubts about his place on the ticket, at least in the minds of political insiders.

When the Persian Gulf war prompted speculation that Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf might replace Mr. Quayle on the 1992 ticket, leading Republicans were quick to discount the possibility. Mr. Bush himself, in a futile effort to squelch the issue, announced early in his presidency that he would choose Mr. Quayle again if he decided to run in 1992.

The president's judgment is at stake in the controversy, because he single-handedly chose the Indiana conservative as his running mate three summers ago.

Post-election analysis suggested that Mr. Quayle may have cost Mr. Bush a percentage point or two in 1988. But there are predictions that unless Mr. Quayle is somehow able to allay concerns about his abilities or is dumped, the concerns about presidential succession raised by Mr. Bush's heart problem could easily cost the GOP ticket twice as many votes in a 1992 re-election race.

"That begins to hurt in an awful lot of swing states," Mr. Phillips noted.

Democratic politicians, who have despaired in recent months of finding an issue to defeat the highly popular president, are likely to do all they can to keep the subject of Mr. Quayle's qualifications alive.

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