Questions on the Way to Houston

IN this pause before the Republican convention in Houston and the rest of the campaign, let's look at a few relevant questions:

Q: Could Dan Quayle still be dropped from the ticket?

A: Yes, it still could happen although it isn't too likely. President Bush has publicly said on several occasions that Mr. Quayle remains as his No. 2 man. And he apparently has told Quayle this in a private conversation in which his vice president offered to step down.

But a president can change his mind. Right up to the time of the nomination of his vice president, Mr. Bush, with a simple phone call, could tell Quayle that he is out and someone else is in. Remember how Franklin Roosevelt replaced his vice president, Henry Wallace, with Harry Truman at the 1944 convention?

If Bush still is some 25 to 30 percentage points behind Bill Clinton at convention time, and if the polls show that Quayle is responsible for a significant amount of that deficit, then it is possible that the president might feel he must find a new running mate.

But even then, Bush might not make the change simply because by so doing he would be irritating - and perhaps saying goodbye to the votes of - millions of hardcore conservative Republicans who like Quayle.

He would know that the only replacement who could keep a hold on those conservatives and also reach out to many moderate and liberal voters is his Housing and Urban Development secretary, Jack Kemp. But Bush would also know that it doesn't necessarily follow that Mr. Kemp would say "yes" if the VP slot were offered.

Indeed, Kemp might see his own political ambitions being greatly dampened if not dashed by becoming part of a possibly losing ticket. He would undoubtedly recall how Robert Dole's presence on the Jerry Ford ticket in 1976 hurt rather than helped the political career of the senator from Kansas.

Further, the Bush-Kemp relationship has at times been strained. At best - as it is these days - it is not much better than what the diplomats call "correct."

Finally, Kemp likes to be in charge. He's used to being captain - a role he's played on every football team he was on since high school. Obviously, a vice president is in full charge of nothing.

So one might ask: What could be more damaging to Bush than keeping Quayle? The answer: Dumping Quayle and then calling Kemp and getting a "No."

Q: What was the most significant happening at the Democratic convention?

A: Behind all the hoopla and speechmaking and the stories about Mr. Clinton's astonishing rise in the polls, a sea change was taking place in the Democratic Party: It was marching south for its choice of presidential nominee, perhaps for years to come.

The fact is that the party's leaders and voters have grown weary of looking north, particularly to New England and Massachusetts, for a winner.

As they picked two southerners to head their ticket, I heard them again and again citing a truth they have often ignored: That the only way the Democrats have won the presidency since John F. Kennedy is with southern candidates Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter.

Q: Are these presidential-nomination conventions passe?

A: That's been a widely held position among political observers and pundits - particularly those in academia and the media - for almost a generation.

"They're useless, a waste of time; nothing ever happens anymore." That's their verdict.

Certainly, the presidential nomination has long been decided before conventions through the primaries. And it's arguable that the selection of the nominee was really what these conventions were set up to do.

But a great deal happened in New York. While there, one could feel the resurgence of the Clinton bid for the presidency.

It was the adding of Al Gore to the ticket on the eve of the convention. It was the exit of Ross Perot - an announcement that became a part of Clinton's emergence as a credible and perhaps winning candidate.

And it was Clinton's and Mr. Gore's acceptance speeches, both of which did so much to launch their nominations and propel them forward.

Something did, indeed, happen at the New York convention.

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