The Quayle Question

Jay Leno and David Letterman can breathe a little easier tonight: after much Sturm and no small amount of Drang, it is finally clear that Dan Quayle will remain on the 1992 Republican ticket. But the outlook for George Bush and the GOP is a little murkier. Quayle's hapless burbling on touchy issues like abortion rights, to say nothing of his spelling problems, has raised the possibility that he could cost Bush critical votes in what more and more looks like an uphill struggle to win a second term. Many inside the Beltway know this and some, including a number of Quayle's allies on the Republican right, were hoping last week that Quayle would take the hint and quietly fade away. This was not to be: after a man-to-man conversation with the president, a stern-faced veep emerged to answer the obvious question. Was he staying, reporters asked? "Yes," he said. Case closed.

In truth, it was a closer call than that. White House sources let it be known that Bush and Quayle had discussed Quayle's departure on at least two separate occasions in recent days, and that Bush had consulted Secretary of State James Baker as well. Quayle's advisers said Quayle raised the question himself out of loyalty to the ticket, they said-and that Bush had twice indicated there was no need for him to step down. Their conversations were neither confrontational nor emotional, a Quayle loyalist reported. Bush and Quayle ,'sat there and bitched about how the news was playing it ... [and] Bush kept telling him it was bulls-t." But a senior Bush aide, expressing the point of view now widely held among ranking Republicans, said, "There are many of us who think that Quayle should go." The problem, he continued, was that "no one has the guts to make that argument to the president," who has said many times since 1988 that he intends to stand by his running mate.

The reality was that the pressure to dump Quayle was only far behind the opposition and seems to be going nowhere. The grumbling continued even after Bush told reporters at midweek that Quayle's place on the ticket was "very certain." At least half of the 15 Republican senators at a gathering of the moderate Wednesday Group reportedly said Quayle should be dropped from the ticket. "Desperate times call for desperate measures," one conservative member of Congress said. "It's time for Quayle to go." Conservative columnists George F. Will and William F. Buckley Jr. agreed, with Buckley arguing in a Friday column that replacing Quayle with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp would have "a transforming effect" on the campaign.

Transformation may be necessary. By NEWSWEEK'S latest national survey, conducted among registered voters last week, Bush is trailing Bill Clinton by 18 points, 37 to 55 percent. And while that margin is uncannily like Michael Dukakis's lead at a similar point in 1988, there is reason to think Bush may have more difficulty in playing catch-up this time. It is arguable that Ross Perot's peekaboo candidacy has had the effect of weaning Reagan Democrats and other swing voters away from the GOP; the Republicans' own polls show that the overwhelming majority of Perot's supporters are currently leaning toward Clinton.

The challenge now for Bush and Quayle is to reverse those numbers by deflating the bubble of post-convention optimism that surrounds the Democratic campaign (page 27). But last week both Bush and Quayle stumbled. The veep fell into heresy by artlessly admitting on television that he would support his daughter Corinne if hypothetically-she chose to have an abortion. "Obviously, I would counsel her and talk to her, and support her on whatever decision she made," Quayle told CNN's Larry King. "I'd hope she wouldn't make that decision."

The next day, however, his wife, Marilyn, a staunch conservative ideologue, bluntly contradicted Quayle by insisting during a radio interview that if Corinne who is 13, "becomes pregnant, she'll take the child to term." Mercifully, no one interviewed Corinne herself on this most sensitive subject, and Clinton scored an easy point in the mawkishly personalized family-values debate when he said that if his own daughter became pregnant, he wouldn't "talk to the press about it."

Then Bush, appearing before a group of POW/MIA families in suburban Washington, got into a shouting match with some who believe the Defense Department has long covered up evidence that American servicemen are still being held captive in Southeast Asia. Sources in the Bush campaign said the president had ignored warnings he might encounter protests at the POWMIA meeting and then seemed to lose his poise. Clearly frazzled by chants of "no more lies," the president told one participant to "shut up and sit down" while he finished his speech.

This is not the behavior of a confident, well-prepped candidate-and indeed, there are many indicators that the Bush team, headed by veteran Republican strategist Robert Teeter and White House chief of staff Samuel Skinner, is in disarray. One symptom is the persistent grumbling that Teeter, along with Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady and budget chief Richard Darman, has been counting too heavily on an uptick in the economy to bail Bush out of election trouble. According to one insider, Bush went "ballistic" when he realized none of his advisers had anticipated that the June unemployment figures, which rose to 7.8 percent, would undercut the administration's promise of better times.

Assuming, as many do, that the president urgently needs a firmer hand at the helm of his re-election effort, political pros see only one possible nominee: Jim Baker, the Svengali of Bush's come-from-behind '88 victory. Baker last week was in the Middle East, trying to orchestrate what may yet be a breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli peace talks. And while both he and White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater tried to deflect the rampant speculation that he would soon leave State, the talk within the White House suggested this speculation is on the mark. Some sources said Baker could take over the campaign as early as this week, though it was more likely that he and Bush would wait until after Aug. 10, when the peace negotiations resume in Washington. Skinner and Teeter have maintained for months that Baker's help was not needed, but both are now telling anyone who will listen that he will be welcome. In fact, both are nearly apoplectic at the prospect of losing power.

So Bush is stuck with a running mate whose political liabilities have not diminished with the passage of time.. NEWSWEEK'S survey shows that 56 percent of those polled now have an unfavorable opinion of Quayle, compared with 43 percent in 1988. Large majorities gave Al Gore higher marks for his understanding of the issues and his judgment in a crisis. And remarkably, given Quayle's much-publicized attack on "Murphy Brown," the voters seem to pick Gore over Quayle (46 to 37 percent) when asked which veep candidate "stands for family values."

Bush himself remains optimistic. "There will be plenty of time" to go on the offensive after the GOP convention, he told his jittery staff last week. "We'll get our turn." A smooth convention featuring Bush's acceptance speech on prime-time television should help Bush and Quayle get their own bounce in the polls. The question is, can the White House team pull itself together in time to take advantage of it?

Newsweek Poll Is Dan Quayle qualified to step in as president if he had to? 36% Yes 60% No Should Quayle remove himself from the Republican ticket? 46% Yes 47% No Do Quayle's remarks on abortion make you more or less likely to vote for the Bush-Quayle ticket? 14% More likely 40% Less likely

For the Newsweek poll, The Gallup Organization telephoned 1,027 registered voters July 23-24. Margin of error is +- 3 percentage points (5 for the abortion question asked of 511). "Don't know" and other responses not shown. The Newsweek Poll copyright 1992 by Newsweek, Inc.