DAN QUAYLE'S job seems momentarily secure, but the vice president remains a lightning rod for the beleaguered Republican White House.
Three weeks before the opening of the Republican National Convention in Houston, President Bush and Mr. Quayle trail by 2 to 1 behind the high-flying Democratic team of Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee. Gloom is spreading over the Republican camp.
Some Republicans, yearning for action, would clearly like Quayle to go. Yet the White House argues, and experts agree, that dumping the controversial vice president from the GOP ticket would fix nothing. It might even hurt.
"President Bush has no choice but to keep Dan Quayle on the ticket," says Martin Wattenberg, a political scientist who studies the impact of vice presidents on campaigns. "I think it would be a terrible public relations problem [for Mr. Bush] if he dumped him."
Republican consultant Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies says that "those who don't like Dan Quayle are those who are not going to vote Republican anyhow." When people ultimately choose in November, they will be thinking about Bush vs. Clinton, not Quayle vs. Gore, he says.
Conservative activist Richard Viguerie grumbles: "Bush doesn't have a Quayle problem. Bush has a Bush problem. Dan Quayle mustn't be scapegoated in the president's reelection strategy."
Even Republican insiders admit privately, however, that they are worried about the impact of Quayle in a very close race.
A poll released over the last weekend in July by Time/CNN found that 49 percent of registered voters wanted Bush to dump Quayle. About one-fourth of the voters said they were less likely to support the GOP with Quayle on the ticket.
Four years ago Quayle was equally controversial, but it hardly mattered in the campaign between Bush and Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. Bush won by more than 7 million votes.
Yet Dr. Wattenberg's study of survey data indicates that Bush would have won that year by an even larger margin, perhaps by 9 million votes, with a stronger running mate.
The Gallup Organization, using different methods, calculated a somewhat smaller impact from the Quayle candidacy. Their estimate: Quayle cost Bush about 1 percent of the vote in 1988.
What about 1992? Could Quayle drag Bush down to defeat?
On July 22 on CNN's "Larry King Live," the vice president said: "If I thought for one moment that I was hurting George Bush, or by me staying on the ticket it would hurt the president's chances for getting reelected, I'd be gone."
Yet that danger clearly exists.
"Quayle hurt the ticket [in 1988] more than any vice president we have data on [back to 1952]," says Wattenberg, who is based at the University of California in Irvine. He estimates that 2 percent of the voters backed Governor Dukakis over Bush because of Quayle.
If this year's race is as close as many predict, 2 percent would be enough to tip the November election to Clinton, Wattenberg says.
John White, a Texan and former Democratic Party chairman, says that regardless of the dangers of keeping Quayle on the ticket, it would be a terrible mistake for the president to drop him.
But at a breakfast meeting with reporters, Mr. White added cheerfully that Quayle could have the greatest impact ever for a vice president on the outcome of an election, perhaps as much as 5 to 10 points.
PUTTING on his partisan hat, White says that never before in modern political political times has there been such a "clear division of the capability" of two vice presidential candidates as between Quayle and Gore.
To reverse that perception, "Quayle has to win" the vice presidential debate this fall with Gore, White insists.
Republican Bolger takes just the opposite view. Expectations are so low for Quayle in the debate that there will be "huge expectations ... on Gore's shoulders," Bolger says.
Why not just drop Quayle? Analysts point to two factors.
Selecting Quayle as his running mate was Bush's first big decision after eight years under Ronald Reagan's shadow. Reversing that decision would be an admission that Bush was wrong.
Firing Quayle would also reinforce Bush's weakness on the domestic front. Conservatives are already furious with the president for reversing his "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge. Quayle has become a spokesman within the administration for disgruntled conservatives.
Wattenberg says his lengthy study of vice presidents has turned up three inviolable rules for picking a running mate. They are: Be safe (pick someone with experience). Be safe (pick someone with no skeletons). Be safe (pick someone already investigated by the national media).
Clinton followed those rules. Bush did not. Now Bush may pay the price.