WHEN George Bush steps to the plate in the 1992 election, will Dan Quayle still be on his team? Mr. Quayle's political future became a prime topic in the nation's capital this week following Mr. Bush's hospitalization.
The outlook for the 1992 campaign ``has changed rapidly'' because of Bush's health problems, says former Democratic chairman John White. Even so, Mr. White joins other political analysts, who widely believe that the president will keep Quayle at his side during next year's race.
That prospect clearly disturbs many Americans.
A nationwide poll this week by USA Today found that 46 percent of 611 adults surveyed felt that the vice president was not qualified to take over the Oval Office. And 51 percent thought Quayle should be dropped from the ticket in 1992.
The Washington Post, in a lead editorial, suggests that even among Republicans, there is a ``very strong feeling that he [Bush] has put the country at risk'' by placing Quayle in the No. 2 post. The New York Times says the vice president is unable to ``shake his image as an amiable lightweight.''
Despite such strong sentiment, there is general agreement here that Bush will stand solidly by his young, ebullient veep.
``Mr. Bush is a stubborn man,'' editorializes the Times. But the president himself regards loyalty to friends and allies as one of his best qualities, and he was immediately supportive of his No. 2 man: ``He has my full support,'' the president said. ``He always has. He is doing a first-class job.''
Earl Black, a political scientist who is currently completing a book on presidential politics in the South, says Bush's support for Quayle makes sense.
The question of who is vice president ``is not going to make a great deal of difference in '92 unless the health problem is a great deal more serious than it looks at the moment,'' says Dr. Black, who teaches at the University of South Carolina.
Black also warns that Democrats who attack Quayle will find that tactic is a ``weak reed'' upon which to build a winning coalition.
History indicates Black is correct. In the mid-1950s, after President Dwight Eisenhower experienced health problems, there was pressure for Richard Nixon to withdraw as vice president. But Mr. Nixon's presence on the ticket seemed to make little difference. Likewise, when doubts arose about Spiro Agnew, President Nixon retained him. There was little political fallout.
Democrat White agrees that vice presidents don't matter much.
``It's foolish for us to run against Quayle,'' he says. ``The vote will be on George Bush. ... We've got to take on the president and the president's policies.''
White wants to see that happen right away. He thinks it is time for big-name Democrats - Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri - to jump into the fray.
White considers Bush vulnerable, despite his wide support.
``We were about to crown him king a month or so ago,'' he observes. ``But ... he's vulnerable on economic policy, of course. And I think he's vulnerable on foreign policy.
``We've got a president whose foreign policy is shoot first, and ask questions later. ... If [America is] not willing to use restraint ... we're going to be in some kind of war nearly all the time.''