ATLANTA -- It was a commentary on the continued low state of the vice presidency as a voting issue that, in the debate among the three 1992 aspirants for the job, there was virtually no discussion about their own qualifications to be president.
Only one general question was asked about how each of them saw the role of the vice president and his own qualifications, and the responses were routine and unrevealing.
Vice President Dan Quayle recited how he stepped in to oversee the American response to the 1989 coup in the Philippines when President Bush was traveling to Malta for a summit meeting, passing on a recommendation to Bush, who decided what to do. Quayle modestly called it "an example of where I was tested under fire and in a crisis."
Retired Adm. James Stockdale rather lamely observed that he was sure the head of his ticket, Ross Perot, "would make me a partner" in everything he did as president. And Democratic vice presidential nominee Al Gore said only that he and his standard-bearer, Bill Clinton, "will work together to put our country back on the right track again."
Four years ago, the question of qualification was posed more pointedly to Quayle in his debate with Democratic running mate Lloyd Bentsen. Asked what he would do if suddenly the presidency was thrust upon him, Quayle was so unable to be specific that panelists tried several times, only to elicit from Quayle a recital of his past congressional service.
In light of that history, one would have thought the otherwise excellent moderator, Hal Bruno of ABC News, would have asked the same question the other night. After all, the prime responsibility of any vice president is to be prepared to take over the presidency at a moment's notice.
Instead of informing the voters about their own qualifications to be president -- not vice president, a job with few real responsibilities -- the three running mates became no more than surrogates for the men at the top of their tickets in carrying forward the main lines of argument in the campaign.
Quayle attacked Clinton's character and trustworthiness. Gore hammered at the state of the economy under Bush. And Stockdale praised the integrity of Perot and his ability to put the ,, country on the right course.
It can be argued that each of the running mates demonstrated in a general way through the lively 90-minute exchange how qualified they are to assume the presidency. Quayle and Gore showed they were on top of the tactical demands of their campaigns and well-versed in most of the issues. Stockdale, on the other hand, was clearly in over his head on specifics, basing his claim for election on the same general we-can-fix-it appeal of his leader.
It is an axiom in politics that a running mate does not necessarily have to bring anything politically to a national ticket, but he should not be a drag on it. Post-debate polls by the networks indicated that Gore and Quayle passed that minimal test, but Stockdale did not.
The manner in which he arrived as an uneasy participant in the debate was itself a put-down on the matter of qualifications. Perot chose him initially only as a stand-in running mate -- someone whose name would go on Perot petitions to meet state requirements for ballot position. Perot said he would replace Stockdale later, but after he dropped out of the race and then climbed back in, it apparently was too late to find a better-known or more attractive sidekick.
But for all the qualms that voters have had about Quayle's qualifications to be president, as reflected in all the polls, there is little evidence that voters will be punishing Bush this year for a choice four years ago that still worries many of them. If he loses his re-election bid, as the polls continue to suggest, it will not be because of Quayle, whose performance the other night was much improved over his dismal effort in the 1988 debate.
As much as history warns us that the choice of a vice president can be fateful, voters simply don't consider it high on the list of DTC reasons they vote for or against a presidential candidate, no matter how well or poorly a running mate performs in debate.