WASHINGTON -- There is a small political time bomb sputtering here that is aimed at Vice President Dan Quayle. It will probably fizzle out, but in New Hampshire you never can be sure.
The threat to Quayle lies in a provision of the presidential primary law here that allows candidates for vice president, as well as president, to run. They can place their names on the ballot by circulating petitions or simply run write-in campaigns, the latter even for candidates who do not give their permission.
Hugh Gregg, a former governor and current member of the Republican National Committee, raised the possibility several weeks ago that someone might mount a challenge to Quayle. And he suggested that the vice president might protect himself by entering the primary officially and thus allow New Hampshire Republicans to demonstrate their support.
But some Republicans here close to the Bush administration see that course as a potentially dangerous trap and, on their advice, the vice president has indicated he intends to sit it out. In doing so, Quayle is following "the Bush model"--Bush skipped the primary as vice president in 1984--but, as Gregg points out, at some risk because he has no constituency comparable to the one Bush developed beginning with his 1980 presidential campaign.
An alternative to either filing or ignoring the whole thing would be for Quayle to organize a write-in in his own behalf--but without his fingerprints on it. That is what happened, for example, when it was suggested to President Dwight D. Eisenhower that he might drop Vice President Richard M. Nixon in 1956. Nixon didn't file for a place on the ballot but--surprise, surprise--he polled more than 22,000 write-in votes and stifled the dissent.
There are several circumstances under which Quayle might be seriously threatened. Some Republicans believe that might happen if, for example, President Bush slips sharply in the opinion polls by the time of the primary next Feb. 18 and thus revives speculation about whether he should replace Quayle on the 1992 ticket. Another possibiilty, said one Republican veteran, is that some issue might arise--the overturning of the Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision, for example--that would encourage a write-in as a symbolic protest. Polls taken last year showed a majority of Republicans in the state support abortion rights.
Or there simply may be enough dissatisfaction with Quayle among Republicans here to stimulate a write-in against him as a pressure on Bush. Some Republicans are convinced that is what Gregg is trying to do. The former governor is a political free spirit who has managed campaigns here for candidates as diverse as Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan, as well as Bush in 1980, and he has let the impression grow that he is not an unabashed admirer of the vice president.
Gregg, however, denies it. "That's not true," he says, "I'm not against Quayle." His goals, Gregg says, are to promote interest in the primary, about which he recently published a book, and "to get Quayle up here so people get to know him." At this point, he says, voters in New Hampshire have had far less exposure to the vice president than they usually have to national political leaders.
The precedents for a significant write-in vote are many. The most noteworthy example came in 1964 when four young volunteers from Boston organized a write-in campaign in the presidential primary for Henry Cabot Lodge, the Republican vice presidential nominee in 1960 then serving as the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam. Although Lodge neither authorized the campaign nor appeared in the state, he defeated the two active candidates whose names appeared on the ballot, Barry Goldwater and Nelson A. Rockefeller, as well as a write-in for Nixon.
And Bush received more than 20,000 write-in votes for vice president in 1984 even though his name did not appear on the ballot.
Quayle could expect some votes to be written in even if he does nothing. But the danger in doing nothing obviously is the chance that someone else--someone picked out of the ozone as the symbol of opposition to Quayle--might poll a stronger vote and light a fire of protest against a second term as vice president.
In the end, it probably won't happen. But there are surely New Hampshire Republicans who don't relish the idea of being totally out of the presidential primary action. Sending a message on Dan Quayle could be their answer.