Jockeying For 1996

At first glance, it looks like a Republican intramural Little Big Horn, with Dan Quayle in the role of a surrounded and imperiled General Custer. At last count no fewer than a dozen Republicans are thinking--with one degree of intensity or another--about running for president in 1996 after what they assume will be George Bush's second term. The list ranges from the exalted, such as Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Secretary of State James Baker, to the relatively obscure, such as South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell. "We've got one hell of a farm team," says GOP insider Stuart Spencer.

But what may seem dangerous for Quayle's long-term political prospects is also a crucial short-term insurance policy. The president isn't getting pressure form the Republican wanna-bes to dump Quayle. Their reasoning is classically simple deviousness. If Bush decides to switch now, they think, he might pick a more politically potent running mate, who would then have a head start toward the 1996 nomination. None of the rivals--with the possible exception of Baker, Bush's buddy--could be sure that the president would tap him. "The last thing Jim Baker wants is for, say Dick Cheney to get the vice presidency," says GOP strategist Ed Rollins. "It's much more convenient for everyone of Dan Quayle stays right where he is."

Quayle's position also is buttressed by the party insiders' desire to keep peace in the GOP. A decision to switch veeps could open the Republicans to the fratricidal schisms that lie just beneath the calm surface of Bush's 81 percent approval rating. Pro-choice and right-to-life activists are aching for an opportunity to make dramatic stands at the GOP's convention next year in Houston. A veep change--which would have to be approved by the convention--would give them the chance. "The general feeling is, if it ain't broke don't fix it," said GOP consultant Craig Shirley. "Why remove Quayle and risk having the whole structure start to topple?"

Quayle's rivals are counting on him to self-destruct in 1996. He may, but it's not a sure bet. In the latest CBS-New York Times poll a plurality of Republicans thing the president should dump Quayle, but the margin is a narrow 47-42. A slim majority of Republicans, 52 percent, say that they would worry if Quayle had to assume presidential duties. yet 43 percent of those surveyed considered him qualified for the job. "He's just lightly broiled."

He is singed enough, however, for a number of Republican rivals and their supporters to begin planning to push him aside. Sen. Phil Gramm, a hard-boiled conservative from Texas who now heads the GOP's Senate campaign committee, has made no secret of his lust for the White House. He's all but signed up a campaign manager, well-connected GOP consultant Charles Black. Cheney has allowed conservative public-relations men to flack his name around town. California Gov. Pete Wilson is a national political presence and counts the plugged-in veteran Spencer among his advisers. Baker, those who know him say, wants to keep searching for diplomatic victories--which may be difficult--before turning his attention to a possible '96 run. Campbell, who may soon decide to run for the Senate in South Carolina, is also sketching '96 plans. Had the late Lee Atwater lived, he might have been Campbell's 1996 campaign manager. HUD Secretary Jack Kemp is an established presence and hasn't given up thought of trying for the White House again.

But the very fact that so many rivals are lining up for 1996 could work to Quayle's advantage. The list of certified conservatives alone includes Gramm, Cheney, Kemp and Campbell, as well as evangelist Pat Robertson, former drug czar Bill Bennett, columnist Pat Buchanan and the ex-governor of Delaware, Pete du Pont. In such a crowded field, Quayle would only need a plurality to control the conservative wing. And George Bush, the paragon of loyalty, could be expected to support his vice president.

There are also ideological divisions Quayle could exploit. Many of the new crop of contenders--men such as Baker, Wilson and Education Secretary Lamar Alexander-- are moderate "pragmatists." They can expect a frosty reception from conservatives who control the GOP's nominating process. Baker, especially, is already in their sights. "Baker hasn't shaken the hand of a common man since the last time he tipped his attendant at the Houston Country Club," scoffs GOP consultant Shirley.

Then there is Quayle himself. Friend and adviser Mitch Daniels says that Quayle has yet of look beyond 1992. But those who know Quayle testify to a fierce competitiveness that lurks beneath the smooth face and genial demeanor. Just because Quayle happened into the vice presidency doesn't mean he won't fight to get the top job. With the strong lineup of potential rivals, he will have plenty of opportunities to prove that his friends are right.