Washington -- THE WORD from the White House is that Vice President Dan Quayle will be sent to New Hampshire early next month to spearhead President Bush's campaign for renomination against the challenge there of columnist and television commentator Patrick Buchanan. The sound you may hear is Buchanan rubbing hus hands together in glee.
It's not that Quayle is not capable on the stump of saying all the things held dear by conservatives of the stripe to whom Buchanan will appeal. In three years as vice president, and in the House and Senate before that, Quayle has toed the conservative line and has been a ready listener to and champion of right-wing concerns, even as Bush has seemed too moderate for conservative likes.
But sending Quayle to a state that is in the throes of deep recession, and a state to which Bush in large part owes his 1988 nomination victory, is likely to play directly into Buchanan's hands. In his announcement speech in Concord and subsequently, Buchanan has chided Bush for minimizing the economic plight nationally and in the state, and for failing to come up with any remedy. "What is the White House answer to the recession that was caused by its own breach of faith?" he asked in that speech. "It is to deny we even have a recession."
Buchanan then declared: "Well, let them come to New Hampshire." For this former White House speech writer, the line was an obvious steal from John F. Kennedy's famous Berlin speech about those who doubted West Germany's resiliency: "Let them come to Berlin." But Buchanan, in saying "them," clearly meant Bush himself. Sending a surrogate will enable Buchanan to charge that Bush is taking New Hampshire for granted.
The president, according to Republican Gov. Judd Gregg, his New Hampshire campaign chairman, is committed to campaign in the state two or three times, but not until he returns from his scheduled trip to Asia in late January. By that time, Buchanan can get plenty of mileage out of charging that once again Bush is more interested in foreign affairs and foreign travel than in the plight of unemployed New Hampshire Republicans.
It may be that the thought in dispatching Quayle to the state is that it will cut Buchanan down to size, indicating that his challenge can be handled by a subordinate rather than the president giving the challenger added stature by taking him on himself. The White House has already said that Bush will not take part in any debates during the Republican primaries, either against Buchanan or in later primaries against the Louisiana former Ku Klux Klanner, David Duke.
Buchanan, however, has already challenged the president to debate and can be expected to repeat that challenge even as Quayle campaigns for the president, as a way of underscoring his point that Bush is indeed taking New Hampshire for granted, after all the state's Republicans have done for him. His comeback victory over Sen. Bob Dole in the 1988 primary, after having run a dismal third behind Dole and Pat Robertson in the Iowa caucuses, was a milepost in Bush's nomination drive, and New Hampshirites don't like ingratitude.
The assignment as a stand-in for the president in the state in early January is an opportunity for Quayle to demonstrate his talents as a campaigner, but it also can be a pitfall. Quayle has been free of gaffes in recent months, to the point that some revisionism is going on about his abilities, but all it will take is one serious, or even laughable, misstatement to bring on all the old ridicule again, undermining his mission in New Hampshire in behalf of Bush.
Buchanan, although he has never run for public office before, is a tough political in-fighter who has the advantage of being dead certain of his positions, as controversial as they may be, and an experienced public speaker who knows how to get audiences aroused. Pitting Quayle against him may only serve to give Buchanan a chance to demonstrate he belongs in the major leagues as a campaigner, and he can be counted on to make the most of the opportunity.
Quayle in New Hampshire also is likely to draw strong news media attention, elevating the Republican contest even as the ,, Democrats wage their own primary competition. That too will help give Buchanan more visibility. In all, he has ample reason to look forward to the vice president's visit to the state next month.