WASHINGTON -- Now that Vice President Dan Quayle has declared his presence on the Republican ticket is "a closed issue," the next question is: Will he really hurt President Bush's chances of re-election or, like most past running mates, will he have little impact on the November result?
The history of presidential elections indicates strongly that running mates seldom make any difference, and Exhibit A is Quayle himself four years ago. Surveys during and after the 1988 election found that voters preferred the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, over Quayle by a wide margin, but that didn't keep Bush from winning impressively over Democrat Michael Dukakis.
There have been cases, however, where an argument could be made that the choice of a running mate affected the outcome. On the positive side, Lyndon Johnson of Texas may have been worth a point or two to John Kennedy in the South in his razor-thin victory over Republican Richard Nixon in 1960.
On the negative, it has been suggested that President Gerald Ford's choice of Sen. Bob Dole hurt him in a similarly close race in 1976, when Dole went ballistic in his debate with Jimmy Carter's running mate, then Sen. Walter Mondale. Ford's pardon of Nixon, however, probably was more of a decisive negative factor in that election.
Quayle could play a significant role in the outcome this fall, though, for two reasons. First, four years' experience in the vice presidency, rather than improving Quayle's standing with voters, has actually lowered it. Second, with Bush four years older and subject to continuing rumors about his health, the matter of succession to the presidency becomes an increased public concern.
Those rumors have been knocked down as emphatically as they could be by the president's doctors, but Bush's medical problems in the White House -- an irregular heartbeat, Graves' disease and his famous fainting spell in Tokyo -- keep tongues wagging. Bush-Quayle campaign operatives insist that the rumors have been Democratic-inspired with the precise purpose of making Quayle a voting issue in November, and whether that is true or not, the rumors persist.
Four years ago, Bush's surprise selection of Quayle jolted the Republican National Convention in New Orleans, but there was little concern expressed then about the matter of succession. Bush was a robust 64, and GOP criticism of the choice focused more on an inability to see what Quayle, from the safe Republican state of Indiana, brought to the ticket.
Now, Bush at 68 is the second-oldest incumbent seeking re-election, second only to Ronald Reagan in 1984, and Quayle in four years has earned a reputation, warranted or not, of a lightweight unprepared to take over the presidency. Other vice presidents, to be sure, have been laughingstocks, but mostly because so little was known of them. A great deal is known about Quayle, and what a majority of voters know about him has made him the subject of national ridicule.
Bush's Democratic rival, Gov. Bill Clinton, is already trying to contrast his own choice of Sen. Al Gore as his running mate with the president's selection of Quayle, asking voters to judge which of them acted more wisely in the first critical decision he was called on to make as his party's presidential nominee. And after the celebrated Quayle-Bentsen debate of 1988, in which Bentsen memorably observed that Quayle was "no Jack Kennedy," any Quayle-Gore debate is likely to be the most-watched sparring between running mates in history.
Although some polls have Clinton running as much as 30 percent ahead of Bush right now, the approaching election could be another cliff-hanger, like Kennedy-Nixon in 1960 and Carter-Ford in 1976, especially if the Bush-Quayle campaign runs the intensely negative campaign against Clinton that is now widely expected.
The prospect of a President Quayle, which has now become the subject of everything from bumper stickers and posters to T-shirts, could make a difference in an extremely close election, with the voters' judgment of Bush's 1988 vice-presidential choice, politically inconsequential then, finally coming back to haunt him in 1992.