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In Debate, Quayle at Least Passes the ‘Sidekick Test’

<i> Patrick Thomas writes about politics from Washington</i>

The winner of last Wednesday’s vice presidential debate was clearly Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, the Democratic nominee. But the real loser may have been his running mate, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts. The confrontation between Bentsen and his Republican counterpart, Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana, only emphasized the upside-down quality of the Democratic ticket this year.

What one might call the “sidekick factor” is playing hell with the Boston-Austin strategy to corner Southern electoral votes on Nov. 8. Bentsen makes a very unconvincing Sancho Panza, Tonto or Ed McMahon to the Democratic presidential nominee. If this was a four-way race, Bentsen might well win the whole thing, but it’s not, and in the four weeks ahead, Democrats may begin to question Dukakis’ convention-time decision to try stealing the Texas electoral votes from Vice President George Bush, the Republican nominee.

Stealing Texas won’t be easy. While Bentsen is a shoo-in for reelection to the Senate this fall, he and Dukakis were about 10 points behind Bush and Quayle in statewide polls before the debate. Texans are adept at splitting their ballots and sophisticated enough to know that Bentsen is more powerful as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee than he would be as vice president.

And while Bentsen is more popular in the South than Quayle, polls indicate that the region is increasingly anti-Dukakis; affection for the courtly senator is not transferable to the prickly Massachusetts governor. One way to track this phenomenon in coming weeks will be to see how much of the Democratic Party’s “soft money” is being diverted from support for Dukakis to individual Senate races that may appear to be in jeopardy.

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The basic strategy of the Dukakis camp for the Omaha meeting was to convince the audience that what they were seeing was not a vice presidential but a presidential debate. That strategy may have backfired, because as mediocre as Quayle’s performance seemed, he did pass the basic “sidekick test,” which is a powerful consideration in measuring the stature of Bush himself.

Quayle’s handlers had a right to be pleased with the outcome of the debate. Back in August, eight days after Bush made his astounding announcement that the unknown, undistinguished senator from Indiana would be his choice as a successor, there was a preview of the vice presidential match-up at the Southern Legislators Conference in Lexington, Ky.

The two senators faced the same audience within hours of each other. It was a Bentsen crowd, about three-quarters Democratic, and one could only wonder why the young Hoosier had been scheduled for such an event in the first place. The soft-spoken Bentsen wowed the group, several times hammering his young rival with ridicule. Afterward, Bentsen held a 20-minute press conference and then met with reporters individually.

By contrast, Quayle came into town virtually a prisoner of his own entourage. Hecklers and ugly headlines met him at the airport, and though he boarded a bus with about 40 prominent Kentucky Republicans, a phalanx of Secret Service officers surrounded him with a wall of human flesh.

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Temporarily set free on stage, he demonstrated why the handlers were keeping him under lock and key. Like most veteran politicians, Quayle loathes reading from a prepared text, and indeed, on the Hill, he has a reputation for sending colleagues to the cloakroom couches when he reads a speech. Yet, to the increasing horror of the Republicans in the room, he began to wing it. The problem was that, eight days into his campaign, Quayle obviously had nothing to say.

Embarrassed Republicans could only blame Bush. During rambling comments about job-training legislation that Quayle co-sponsored with, of all people, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the 41-year-old senator was interrupted by applause only three times in 16 minutes. The indifference was thundering, and Marilyn Quayle only added to the embarrassment by slumping so deeply in her chair that she seemed to be sinking into the floor.

Bentsen’s best line concerned Quayle’s appearance before the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention earlier that week, where the Hoosier renounced his vote against Cabinet status for the Veterans Administration. Quayle was one of only 11 senators to vote against the measure, which Bentsen co-sponsored.

“He said his vote against that proposal was a ‘youthful indiscretion,” Bentsen told the partisan crowd. “My friends--that vote occurred only five weeks ago. That was on July 8, 1988, and I really don’t think America can risk ‘youthful indiscretion’ in someone who could become our President at any moment.”

Bentsen toned down his ridicule of Quayle at last week’s Omaha debate, and the Indiana senator, who usually confines his sarcasm to Dukakis, threw some barbs at the Texan on the subject of political-action committee donations. Although Bentsen was correct in saying that PAC donations are “perfectly legal,” Dukakis himself considers them unethical. So score one for Quayle.

Quayle seems to have a knack for drawing public sympathy for what are perceived to be unfair attacks on him by the press, and the debate panelists may have contributed to this sympathy with their hectoring about what Quayle would do if he suddenly became President.

While the Tory Democrat is getting the applause across the South and elsewhere, he is not necessarily getting the votes. The first post-debate polls show a shift toward Dukakis, but a week from now, the spotlight falls on the last debate between the real presidential contenders. Quayle, presumably, can be locked up in his room for the rest of his campaign, and Dukakis will have to manage without Uncle Lloyd. By the end of the month, the governor may find there is a price to pay for being upstaged by his running mate.

As Bentsen himself has said, if Bush is elected, even his enemies will pray for his good health. Dukakis should be so lucky. Bush is saddled up with a callow, blushing sidekick; Dukakis has chained himself to a man who overshadows him.

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The more immediate question is whether Quayle has removed himself as a central issue in the campaign, and the answer is a tentative yes. As some post-debate analysts observed, Quayle may have succeeded in not diverting votes from Bush, while Bentsen probably drew some uncommitted voters to Dukakis. If Bush wins in November, the wisdom of his choice of Quayle may become more apparent. If nothing else, it could make Bush impeachment-proof.


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