Why The Words `President Quayle' Still Scare America

It may not be a vision that many voters share today, but Vice-President Dan Quayle has a clear picture of the future. He and President Bush will be swept back into office next year. And in 1996, the boyish Hoosier will storm into the Oval Office atop the Republican ticket.

Public concerns raised by Bush's irregular heartbeat haven't dimmed Quayle's upbeat outlook. He sneers at the notion that the lack of respect he gets from political savants, late-night comedians, and voters alike will drive him off the ticket. "I try not to think about nonsense," he said during a recent interview with BUSINESS WEEK.

Brave words. But a new round of polls is signaling that Quayle is likely to face a noisy fight over his political future. Democrats, desperate for any chink in Bush's armor, think that Quayle offers them a shot. That has led some jittery Republicans to start a whispering campaign aimed at bouncing Quayle off the ticket. "Dan Quayle ought to expect the worst," warns former Reagan aide Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., now a vice-president of Eli Lilly & Co. in Indianapolis. "There are too many people who are pursuing their own interest at his expense."

'BUM RAP.' After his nomination to the Vice-Presidency, Quayle was wounded by a flap over his Vietnam-era National Guard service. But he survived, and he's likely to ride out this storm as well. Bush has been unswervingly loyal to his Vice-President, and on May 7, he dismissed criticism of Quayle as "a bum rap." Only if the President's popularity crashes and Quayle begins to look like a fatal liability might Bush consider dropping him from the ticket.

But even assuming a Bush-Quayle romp in 1992, the Vice-President will face a fight to win the 1996 nomination against an array of heavyweight contenders. And some stalwart Republicans suggest that propping up the 44-year-old Veep now will sow the seeds of an intraparty battle that could cost the GOP the White House in 1996.

The public reaction to Bush's brush with mortality has jolted Quayle advisers by making clear that their man lacks even a modicum of political respectability. Polls show a majority of Americans want Bush to dump Quayle. A Washington Post-ABC News survey found only 40% of those interviewed believe Quayle is fit to be President, compared with 68% who felt that way about Bush while when he was considered Ronald Reagan's "lapdog."

More important, the new Quayle hunt makes clear that the Veep's plan for winning public acceptance has flopped. Quayle hoped that heading such panels as the Competitiveness Council and the National Space Council, coupled with his extensive fund-raising, would open the door to the Oval Office. But his campaigning for GOP candidates and small-scale victories aren't winning him respectability or getting him attention. "Quayle isn't seen as the No. 2 person in the government, but as the head of some council that could have been handled by a GS-15," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution.

In truth, Quayle isn't the mindless caricature portrayed by TV comedians. He has influence, particularly when he can bring his knowledge of Congress to bear. For example, he helped persuade Bush to press for a vote authorizing the use of force in the Persian Gulf. "You have to build a base of support in the party. Quayle didn't have that when he was selected as Vice-President. He's building it now," says GOP strategist Charles Black.

But to mount a run for the Presidency, Quayle must convince voters, not just politicians, that he's a man of substance. That so many Americans reacted to Bush's illness by thinking, "Oh no, Dan Quayle," shows what a long way he has to go.

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