WASHINGTON -- With George Bush's re-election prospects at their lowest level yet, some Republicans are suggesting the president should cut his losses and replace his controversial ticket mate, Dan Quayle.
A new poll, released last night, showed Mr. Bush trailing Democratic nominee by 28 points. The president was the choice of just 30 per
cent of voters surveyed in the latest ABC/Washington Post poll, which had a margin of error of 5 percent.
Despite of Mr. Bush's political nose dive, there seems to be no significant "Dump Quayle" talk within the White House or the Bush-Quayle campaign, where the vice president is viewed as an asset -- or at least a fact of life. But the renewed attacks on Mr. Quayle signal the despair among Bush supporters as they seek dramatic ways for the president to demonstrate his commitment to change.
Renewed questions about Mr. Quayle's contribution to the Republican ticket come at a time when he
has raised his public profile, delivering provocative speeches that inevitably win enemies as well as friends.
"It's not going to happen," David Beckwith, the vice president's press spokesman, said of talk that Mr. Quayle might go the way of Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller, who was dropped a year before the 1976 election as President Gerald R. Ford tried to regain political strength.
Mr. Bush has repeatedly insisted that Mr. Quayle would remain on the Republican ticket. Indeed, removing him would require a name change for the president's re-election campaign, formally known as Bush-Quayle '92.
As evidence that Mr. Quayle's future is secure, Mr. Beckwith reported that the vice president ate lunch with Mr. Bush in the Oval Office yesterday and then began working on the vice-presidential acceptance speech he is to deliver at the Republican National Convention in Houston next month.
So far, the only major GOP figure to publicly associate himself with the "Dump Quayle" idea is Sen. James M. Jeffords, a moderate Republican from Vermont, who has called the vice president the easiest of Mr. Bush's problems to fix.
Mr. Jeffords, in a series of interviews with reporters in his home state earlier this month, called Mr. Quayle a "liability" to the Bush ticket in Vermont because of the vice president's conservative views and the fact most voters question his fitness to succeed Mr. Bush.
Republican officials in Washington dismiss Mr. Jeffords as a maverick often out of step with the president and the Republican leadership in the Senate. But polls show that a significant number of Republican voters around the country also agree with the senator's view on Mr. Quayle.
The argument for dumping Mr. Quayle may have been further strengthened by Ross Perot's withdrawal from the presidential race last week.
Mr. Quayle had been leading the campaign's attack on the Texas billionaire as part of Mr. Bush's effort to solidify his base among Republican conservatives. Bush strategists had been planning for a three-way contest in which Mr. Perot threatened to take more votes from the president than from Democrat Bill Clinton.
Now, the Bush team needs to go the other way: reaching out toward the center, where the decisive battle
ground with Mr. Clinton is expected to be.
At the same time, Mr. Clinton's new running mate, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, may only reinforce voter concerns about Mr. Quayle's qualifications. According to a recent CNN/Time magazine poll, Mr. Gore was ranked as qualified to be president by 63 percent of those surveyed, while only 21 percent expressed such confidence in Mr. Quayle.
Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman suggests the Bush re-election cause might be advanced if Mr. Quayle were jettisoned in favor of Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and one of the administration's most prominent and popular black officials.
"If I were Dan Quayle, I'd be scared to death," Mr. Hickman added.
Mr. Bush has remained steadfastly committed to Mr. Quayle since announcing his surprising choice for a running mate at the Republican con
vention in New Orleans four years ago.
The pick was said to have been questioned at the time by Mr. Bush's closest advisers, including Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who is expected to trade in his diplomatic pinstripes soon to return to his 1988 role as campaign chief.
But the president reportedly values his vice president for his political instincts. Aides also say he sees something of himself in Mr. Quayle, recalling his own days as a loyal but ridiculed vice president to Ronald Reagan.
On a more practical level, the White House believes the president couldn't possibly gain from what would look like another flip-flip on a major issue.
Mr. Bush's credibility with voters took a beating when he broke his pledge not to raise taxes, and advisers want to avoid renewed charges against the president that he flip-flops on issues.
PRO * It would be a dramatic gesture, signaling a major change in direction for a second Bush term.
* Polls indicate most Americans do not consider Mr. Quayle qualified to assume the presidency.
* A more moderate running mate might help Mr. Bush win voters in the political center, where the election will be decided.
* Mr. Quayle does not secure any regional support that Mr. Bush wouldn't get on his own.
NB * Mr. Quayle continues to make gaffes that embarrass Mr. Bush.
* Replacing Mr. Quayle would look like the ultimate flip-flop by a president often criticized for not standing for anything.
* Mr. Bush would be admitting an error in judgment about the first and most fundamental decision he made on his way to the Oval Office.
* Mr. Quayle is a favorite of Republican conservatives, whose active support Mr. Bush needs.
* Mr. Quayle and his staff have provided many key ideas for the Bush administration, including school choice, family values and legal reform.
* Mr. Quayle may not go quietly.