WASHINGTON -- There's no law against being unable to spell "potato." But it is a political crime when the perpetrator is someone who has attained a reputation like that of Vice President Dan Quayle. And it apparently is a flat-out felony when it happens just as President Bush plunges further in the polls against Democratic nominee Bill Clinton.
Thus, there is nothing surprising in the new round of speculation about whether the president might decide to drop Quayle from the ticket after all, replacing him with Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney or someone else who presumably can spell "potato." But the evidence all argues against Bush taking such a step. Although he may be willing to do whatever it takes to win a second term, the president is a politician who prizes loyalty. He is also one -- is there another kind? -- who balks at having to admit making an error as serious as the one in choosing Quayle in the first place.
More to the point, the Republicans have always been spooked by the memory of the infamous Eagleton episode: Democratic nominee George McGovern's choice of then Sen. Tom Eagleton of Missouri to be his running mate in 1972 only to discover that Eagleton had undergone electric shock therapy for treatment of emotional depression. By the time McGovern dropped Eagleton and found a replacement, Sargent Shriver, any lingering chance he had for success had been destroyed.
The best evidence of the Eagleton hangover among Republicans, let alone Democrats, came four years ago when Quayle was named by Bush at New Orleans and quickly became the target of stories questioning his record in the National Guard and his personal life. When the inevitable rumors that he would be replaced began to circulate, the Bush managers immediately decided that could not be an option and the talk needed to be cut off. As Rich Bond, the Republican national chairman now but then an operative on the campaign strategy team, later recalled, the policy was: "Squash it. Squash that one like a bug. That's unthinkable."
The Bush managers did just that, and a day later the worst of the storm had passed. Quayle might not have been an untarnished candidate but keeping him was still an option to be preferred over sending a message to the voters that Bush had made a monumental blunder in his first decision as the presidential nominee. And that same imperative applies to today and to the new round of rumors about Quayle.
Quite beyond these factors, however, there is another argument that can be made for keeping Dan Quayle on the Republican ticket. Although the president might find this hard to swallow, the truth is that Quayle has done a better job in locking up his hard-core conservative constituency for the ticket than Bush has done with the moderate Republicans to whom he is supposed to appeal first.
Indeed, Quayle has made a sound political use of such devices as the so-called "council on competitiveness" to cut back on government regulations and convince business, as well as right-wing ideologues in general, that the administration is a reliable friend. The vice president has cemented that same feeling with other conservatives by his willingness to take the lead on the "family values" line with his attack on the "Murphy Brown" television show.
What this means is that any decision by Bush to drop Quayle now would not only project an image of the president as panicked and disloyal but also quite likely evoke a strong reaction from the rightists who have never trusted the president fully in any case.
Vice presidents are not always assured a second term, of course. Franklin D. Roosevelt had three in four terms as his political needs changed. And Gerald R. Ford managed to force Nelson A. Rockefeller off his 1976 ticket, but only by acting a year ahead of time and only because Rockefeller was willing to step aside without making a stink.
There is no indication Quayle is similarly inclined to go quietly. Nor would anyone believe at this point that his departure was voluntary, or, for that matter, anything other than a reflection of panic in the White House. The speculation about the ticket is inevitable when the polls are as bad as they are for the president, but the heart of Bush's problem is his own record, not Dan Quayle.