NASHUA, N.H. — Nashu, N. H. - HOURS AFTER THE country had heard the news of President Bush's latest illness, Vice President Dan Quayle stepped off Air Force Two here for a previously scheduled two-day campaign visit.
After reassuring reporters that the president was OK, Quayle took a few questions, the last of which was the same old one, about his "qualifications to fill the presidency" if called on to do so.
Quayle did not hesitate. "I'm ready," he said. End of press conference.
After three years, it's the same old story. The president can't sneeze without questions about this vice president's readiness to assume the world's most important public job.
But as Quayle made a two-day campaign swing through New
Hampshire pointing toward the Feb. 18 Republican presidential primary, the issue did not appear to put any appreciable damper on the enthusiasm and warmth of his reception here. Crowds hemmed him in as he walked through malls shaking hands and signing autographs.
Although the president's momentary collapse at a state dinner in Tokyo was his second visible medical problem in less than a year, the matter of presidential succession does not seem to be of particular public concern.
So what may have loomed at daybreak as a day of crisis became a routine campaign outing, with Quayle handling the standard political chore of trying to assuage New Hampshire voters concerned more about the recession that has hit their state than about Dan Quayle being a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Before local and national cameras, Quayle took pains to emphasize how President Bush "cares about the people of New Hampshire" in their economic plight. He said his own vis
it to local firms here that do a heavy export business underscored the importance of Bush's Asian mission to open foreign markets to American goods.
But none of the three companies Quayle visited on his first day had suffered materially from the recession and none had an unemployment problem. If Quayle came to New Hampshire to learn first hand about the hardship being endured here, he didn't select the best companies to visit -- certainly no accident.
The Bush campaign strategists obviously have cast Quayle as Mr. Sunshine and he plays the part to the hilt, smiling brightly while expressing the depth of the absent Bush's compassion for recession-plagued New Hampshirites.
When some locals along the way told Quayle they were hurting, his reply was that Bush cared, was doing his best to help and would have answers in his State of the Union speech at the end of this month.
The response was a transparently weak one for folks who want help right now, especially as Republican challenger Patrick Buchanan, the "America First" candidate, hammers away at Bush's focus on foreign affairs, charging him with neglect of the state whose 1988 primary paved the way for his nomination.
Quayle took indirect note of Buchanan's candidacy as a vehicle for protest against Bush by saying it wasn't necessary for New Hampshire voters to use the primary ballot to do so.
"I understand you want to send a message," he said in one press conference. "We got the message. But please, New Hampshire, don't send us a message of isolationism. Don't send us a message of protectionism. New Hampshire has 35,000 jobs that are directly dependent on exports."
At a party reception in Litch field, Quayle reported that he had just talked to the president in Japan and was told he was feeling fine and would be up in New Hampshire next week to campaign in person. This too was a response to Buchanan, who has been making much of Bush's failure to return to the state at any time since it gave him his 1988 primary victory that put him on the road to nomination and election.
The next day, in Littleton, Quayle gave the local Chamber of Commerce his version of why Bush has been a success in foreign policy but frustrated on the domestic front: he can do what he wants in the former but has to go to the Democratic-controlled Congress in the latter.
Quayle often is used to try out themes, and this one obviously will be heard again next week when the president comes into the state. As a warm-up act, Quayle is more than adequate. But these meticulously orchestrated trips do little to provide an answer to the critical question: Is Dan Quayle really, as he insists, "ready" to be president?