Renewed attention is focused on vice president

January 09, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

NASHUA, N.H. -- Assuming a business-as-usual attitude, a smiling Vice President Dan Quayle embarked yesterday on a two-day campaign swing through the crucial state of New Hampshire.

It was, of course, anything but a typical day for Mr. Quayle, and concern over President Bush's health dominated the vice president's partisan mission.

Heart-stopping pictures of the ashen-faced president being lifted from the floor in Tokyo hours earlier had once again focused attention on Mr. Quayle's place at the head of the line of presidential succession -- and on lingering public doubts about his qualifications.

Among the questions Mr. Quayle faced when he arrived in New Hampshire shortly after noon was whether he was qualified to take over as president.

"I'm ready," he replied succinctly.

Mr. Quayle said that the question of his preparation for the presidency "didn't even cross my mind" when he learned that Mr. Bush had been taken ill, because he had been told the president's condition wasn't serious.

Mr. Quayle got the news in a phone call at 6:30 a.m. from the White House situation room. At the time, Mr. Quayle said, he was already awake, "reading the local newspaper."

That remark was clearly intended to draw attention to a seven-part series in the Washington Post tracing Mr. Quayle's personal and political rise. No major revelations have emerged from the articles, which Quayle aides believe support their view that the vice president is a more substantial person than many Americans think.

Public opinion has yet to reflect that impression, however. A recent poll by Yankelovich, Clancy, Shulman for Time magazine found that a plurality of Americans -- 44 percent -- still believe that Mr. Bush should dump Mr. Quayle from the '92 ticket, a figure essentially unchanged from a national poll in October 1990 by CBS and the New York Times.

And if past experience is any guide, worries about Mr. Quayle may rise as a result of the president's illness. Last May, after Mr. Bush was hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat later traced to a thyroid condition, the number of Americans who said Mr. Quayle should be dumped rose to 54 percent.

Quayle aides say they don't anticipate a similar rise this time, unless Mr. Bush's condition proves to be more serious than initially reported.

Although Mr. Bush will not formally declare his candidacy until after his Jan. 28 State of the Union message, he has already announced that Mr. Quayle will be his running mate. The official name of the re-election committee is Bush-Quayle '92.

As a result of the president's illness, at least a dozen reporters hurried to join the Quayle press corps, swelling its number to more than 70. And though it was a reminder of his political liabilities, the sudden surge of interest offered the vice president a chance to take advantage of his moment in the spotlight.

The entire 1992 campaign "is an opportunity for him, because most people out in the country are still left with the image of him that they were left with in 1988," said David Beckwith, the vice president's press secretary.

"I think they'll get a vastly different impression than they did in 1988."

Most of those catching a glimpse of Mr. Quayle as he toured several high-tech factories and a local mall seemed enthusiastic about his visit to this economically battered state.

One man who drove over the border from nearby Chumsford, Mass., said he had no qualms about Mr. Quayle's ability to assume the leadership of the country, if it ever became necessary.

Ernest Cadwell, a retiree, said any concerns he might have had were eased by the on-the-job training Mr. Quayle has gotten over the past three years.

But some others along the vice president's hand-shaking route were less sure about the idea of a President Quayle.

"It worries me," said Judy Miller, manager of the Stride Rite shoe store at Pheasant Lane Mall in Nashua, where Mr. Quayle spent a half-hour greeting shoppers.

Ms. Miller admitted that she was frightened when she first heard the news about Mr. Bush's apparent collapse and said that she wasn't sure Mr. Quayle should have made the trip.

Quayle aides, while acknowledging privately at midafternoon that they were still uncertain about the extent of the president's illness, said that no serious consideration was given to postponing the visit.

Mr. Quayle's trip is the first phase of a six-week political blitz by the president's re-election team, leading up to the nation's first presidential primary here on Feb. 18.

With the local economy in a deep recession, Mr. Bush faces a potentially serious primary challenge from conservative columnist Patrick J. Buchanan, who is concentrating his efforts on this state.

Mr. Quayle passed up few chances to attack Mr. Buchanan on New Hampshire soil, referring to him dismissively as a "Washington pundit" who is preaching isolationism and protectionism.

Following a tour of P. D. Circuits Inc. in Hudson, N.H., where workers assemble electronic circuit boards, he criticized Mr. Buchanan's "glib rhetoric" and claimed that his "America First" campaign could cost New Hampshire tens of thousands of jobs tied to exports.

Acting as an advance scout for Mr. Bush's scheduled Jan. 15 campaign visit to the state, Mr. Quayle said he had come mainly to listen to the concerns of state voters.

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