Rumour mill in top gear as Bush campaign falters

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The Independent Online
WITH THE departure of James Baker from the State Department to lead his President's faltering re- election campaign looking more likely by the day, an old rumour has resurfaced - that Vice-President Dan Quayle may be dropped from the Republican ticket and replaced by the Defense Secretary, Dick Cheney.

Yesterday George Bush moved swiftly to rebut such talk, insisting before a Cabinet meeting that Mr Quayle's position was 'very certain'. Earlier, he said that, contrary to a fresh spate of press reports, no final decision had been taken on whether Mr Baker, who masterminded his election four years ago, would return.

From Cairo, the latest stop on his Middle East peace trip, Mr Baker too was strongly advising caution: 'Until you hear it from the President, I wouldn't make a book on it . . . I wouldn't bank on it.' For Washington politicians, however, these are but ritual disclaimers before an upheaval virtually guaranteed by the President's abysmal standing.

By mid-August at the latest, once Mr Bush's meeting at Kennebunkport with the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, is out of the way, White House advisers, Bush campaign managers and Republican strategists alike believe Mr Baker will have moved across as some form of 'policy tsar'. It is unclear whether he would step down on a temporary basis, or formally resign. Either way, he is expected to be replaced by his deputy, Lawrence Eagleburger.

The speculation around Mr Baker is the least 'crazy' of the rumours sweeping an unnerved Republican high command. Some, like those suggesting that Mr Bush was about to pull out on grounds of ill-health which sent Wall Street briefly skidding last Friday, are incredible. Nor is there the slightest evidence, as other gossip has it, that Barbara Bush or Mr Quayle's wife, Marilyn, is unwell.

Each, though, serves a purpose. As the Los Angeles Times wrote yesterday, 'it is a truism of politics that if a campaign doesn't make its own news, it becomes a victim of other people's stories'. The talk about Mr Quayle fits the pattern perfectly.

On balance, the odds must still be that he will stay. Apart from Mr Bush's words of support, the abrupt jettisoning of a vice-president three weeks before the Republican convention would only increase the impression of panic. It would also risk upsetting Republican conservatives far fonder of Mr Quayle than of the President.

On the other hand, desperation knows no logic. All the old misgivings about Mr Quayle have been thrown into focus by the bristling competence of his Democratic opposite number, Senator Al Gore, who now joins battle with someone who, as talk-show jokes remind the nation daily, cannot even spell 'potato'.

The country would happily see the back of Mr Quayle: according to a poll this week, by a 46-40 margin Americans think he should be taken off the ticket. The 'potato' gaffe has undone everything achieved by his relentless stump work on behalf of 'family values' and other Republican themes. Mr Baker too is known to take a pretty dim view of Mr Quayle.

The most plausible scenario is a swap between Mr Quayle and Mr Cheney. A move to a senior Cabinet job would save the Vice-President's honour. Mr Cheney is another conservative, acceptable to the Quayle constituency, but his qualifications to take over the Presidency if need be are not in doubt.

Clinton sets the pace, page 11