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POLITICS / DUMP QUAYLE? : In GOP Circles, the Talk Is of Baker for VP in '92 : Strategists assess negative ratings for current vice president and would make him the defense chief.

April 24, 1990|JACK NELSON | TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON — Aware that millions of Americans still think Vice President Dan Quayle is not qualified to occupy the Oval Office, some Republican strategists have come up with a solution: move Quayle off the GOP ticket in 1992 and make him secretary of defense.

That idea, making the rounds among Washington insiders in recent days, may not be exactly what uneasy voters had in mind.

But it does reflect political reality: After a full year of the Bush presidency, Quayle is still widely regarded as a lightweight, and many prominent Republicans want President Bush to dump him in 1992.

While Bush's own popularity remains exceptionally high--above 70% in most samplings--his vice president has drawn negative ratings in public opinion polls ever since taking office. Last month, a Gallup poll showed 54% of the public, including 43% of Republicans, considered Quayle not qualified to be President. And 49% said Bush should select a new running mate in 1992.

In particular, many Republican strategists hope Bush will dump Quayle in favor of Secretary of State James A. Baker III. That would not only strengthen Bush's chances of winning reelection, according to this analysis, but would position Baker to succeed Bush and possibly usher in yet another eight years of Republican hegemony.

A lot of things would have to fall in place for that to happen, of course. But the dumping of Quayle and the naming of the secretary of state as Bush's 1992 running mate (with current Pentagon chief Dick Cheney going to State) are considered serious possibilities here by Republicans and Democrats alike.

In fact, two longtime associates of the President, including a senior Administration official, say they are convinced Bush will drop Quayle and turn to Baker. The senior official, who strongly favored Bush's selection of Quayle in 1988, says that in 15 months as vice president Quayle has shown "he just doesn't have the experience or the ability" to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Both of these Bush associates, along with several others, stress that Baker has made no secret of his ambition to be President and that he can't run while serving as secretary of state. "Baker has a way of getting what he wants and if he wants the presidency bad enough he could get the President to put him on the ticket in 1992," says a former Reagan aide and Bush adviser.

"Jim Baker wants to be President worse than anybody I've ever known," says former Demo- cratic Chairman Robert S. Strauss, a fellow Texan and friend of both Bush and Baker.

In a close election, the Constitution could pose a problem for a Bush-Baker ticket because Electoral College delegates from any individual state may not cast their votes for both a President and vice president from the electors' own state. That could conceivably cost a Bush-Baker ticket the vote-rich prize of Texas.

But wait, say Bush aides: The President could simply switch his legal residence to Maine, where he has a house in Kennebunkport. Significantly, they note that the question has already been carefully researched.

Still, the President has steadfastly defended Quayle and--when pressed--said he plans to keep him on the ticket in 1992. But most political analysts and some of Bush's own advisers think the President will make a coldly calculated decision when the time comes.

"Quayle is on trial," says a Bush confidant of many years. "One way or the other he has got to work himself out of the hole he's in."

Pat Buchanan, a conservative commentator who served as Reagan's communications director, said Quayle "needs a breakthrough" and "to be seen working well in some kind of a crisis."

Quayle's view is that the selection of the running mate "is the President's to make," says David Beckwith, the vice president's spokesman. "But . . . he is not worried in the least. Obviously, the President could change his mind, but if you take him at his word, the matter is settled."

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