WASHINGTON -- When President Bush was asked yesterday how he would answer pundits questioning the competence of his vice president, he said he was sorely tempted to respond with a rude hand gesture.
"I'm no Nelson Rockefeller," he joked, in both explaining his restraint and making clear that what he had in mind was the single-digit insult once hurled at hecklers by the former Republican vice president.
Mr. Bush insisted that the new round of speculation about Mr. Quayle's place on the 1992 election ticket, sparked by the president's health scare last weekend, "is unfair and it is piling on and it is beneath the critics to do it at this time."
"I don't know how many times I have to say it, but I'm not about to change my mind when I see his performance and know what he does," the president said. When pressed again on the issue later, Mr. Bush said Mr. Quayle would definitely be his running mate in a second White House bid.
Questions about Mr. Quayle's ability to run the country have been raised since the moment Mr. Bush plucked him from near obscurity in the Senate to run with him in 1988.
After 28 months in office, Mr. Bush acknowledged, "It's a question I can't lay to rest," despite determined efforts by the White House to give Mr. Quayle visibility as an adviser on key issues and to publicize his efforts on the specific tasks to which the president has assigned him.
The president said he believed that the jokes and other unfavorable comments made at Mr. Quayle's expense have "probably been quite hurtful to him." He said he tried to console Mr. Quayle about it yesterday, noting his own experience as vice president to Ronald Reagan.