WASHINGTON -- The other day in Boston, peals of laughter greeted Republican Gov. William F. Weld of Massachusetts when he told State House reporters that he considered Vice President Dan Quayle "the best political mind in the White House." But Mr. Weld went on to argue that the much-ridiculed vice president is "very quick in his judgments and I think sure" on matters of politics.
That view has had its adherents elsewhere in the Republican Party -- not necessarily that Mr. Quayle has the best political mind in the White House but that whatever his other shortcomings, he recognizes the politics in situations and has an instinct for extracting political capital from them. His use of the birth of a child to a single woman on the "Murphy Brown" television show to illustrate an erosion of "family values" -- a theme much favored by conservatives -- was only the most recent illustration.
But Mr. Weld's observation came before the vice president got himself entangled in the critical abortion issue by saying in a TV interview that, in a hypothetical situation, he would support his daughter's decision to have an abortion, though he opposes the procedure. Abortion-rights advocates immediately pointed out that such support would run contrary to his long-held position against a woman's right to choose.
Mr. Quayle could not have picked a worse issue to stir up in this election year, when positions on abortion so clearly divide the major party nominees, and when the contest for the women's vote shapes up as so critical.
Within the Republican Party as well, the issue spells trouble. Abortion will be debated at length either inside or outside the Republican National Convention in Houston next month, with a number of Republican women pressing for revision in the anti-abortion plank that has been in the GOP platform since 1980.
At a minimum, Mr. Quayle's comment-- he later said he remained firmly anti-abortion -- is likely to reduce his effectiveness in arguing his party's position on this issue, as well as refuel the widespread impression that he is not sharp enough to stand a heartbeat from the presidency.
The episode also comes as rumors refuse to die that President Bush will drop Mr. Quayle from the ticket. But even in this latest flap, conservatives have rallied around him, and with Mr. Bush needing desperately to hold onto his conservative base, Bush-Quyle insiders say there is no reason to doubt the president's statement this week that Mr. Quayle's place on the ticket is "certain."
But it is a political axiom that a running mate cannot bring many votes to a party's national ticket but should at least not cost the ticket votes.
In an interview on CNN's "Larry King Live" on Wednesday night, the host asked Mr. Quayle what he would do if his 13-year-old daughter, Corinne, got pregnant. The vice president said he would "counsel her and talk to her and support her on whatever decision she made."
When Mr. King asked him what he'd do "if the decision was abortion," Mr. Quayle replied: "I'd support my daughter. I'd hope she wouldn't make that decision."
The vice president didn't seem to grasp at the time that he was enunciating the basic position of abortion-rights advocates, but his wife Marilyn did. She told a radio interviewer categorically that "if she becomes pregnant, she'll take the child to term." An aide later said Mr. Quayle's answer to Mr. King was in the context of his daughter as an adult and that he agreed with his wife.
The vice president over the last four years has been criticized widely for committing gaffes, such as his recent coaching of a spelling bee contestant to spell Idaho's favorite product "potatoe."
During the 1988 presidential campaign, Mr. Quayle champed at the bit over the imposition of "handlers" from the Bush campaign to steer him clear of gaffes. At one point he rebelled, declaring he would be his own "spin doctor," and since his election as vice president he has made a point of saying those handlers were to blame for his problems and that he is now on his own.
In the current campaign, there is no senior Bush political adviser traveling with Mr. Quayle to keep an eye on him. He has been regarded as a trustworthy conveyor of the campaign message, and when television commentator and newspaper columnist Patrick J. Buchanan challenged Mr. Bush in the Republican primaries this year, Mr. Quayle was sent out onto the firing line to plead the president's case, with no notable gaffes.
But this latest flap certainly draws into question Mr. Weld's judgment about who has "the best political mind in the White House."