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Dan Quayle's early exit from a presidential race that won't be decided for more than a year should do more than cause consternation for talk-show hosts.

Quayle's stated reason for giving up the quest -- his inability to match front-runner George W. Bush on the campaign fund-raising trail -- should make Americans pause at least a moment. They should consider whether the ability to beg or strong-arm donors who want something in return should be the criteria for mounting a campaign.

Bush, the Texas governor and presidential son, began sopping up all of the campaign money the minute he announced his interest. It has left the also-rans like Quayle scrounging for pennies just to keep their campaigns alive.

Granted a case can be made that there's a direct correlation between Quayle's embarrassing background and his inability to raise money. The man whose very presence in the race created a target-rich environment for comedians is best known for such gaffes as misspelling "potato." In fact, he mangled the well-known United Negro College Fund slogan so badly that one had to wonder if he'd ever matriculated.

From the moment former President George Bush chose him as his running mate in the 1988 campaign, it was apparent that Quayle lacked the intellectual heft for either that job or the Oval Office itself.

Given such baggage, it could easily be concluded that donors -- even socially conservative ones -- recognized Quayle for what he is, and that his inability to compete is no reflection on the system.

But that doesn't answer the question of why more substantive politicians such as Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole also can't compete with Bush. They're also trailing far behind in the polls, and -- not coincidentally, -- in the money chase.

Surely politicians like that can't be written off so easily when neither they nor Bush have said or done anything that would make his superiority so obvious.

Rather, McCain and Dole are being talked about like also-rans because of a system in which the money to buy TV and radio commercials becomes far more important than what a candidate has to say. It's a system in which someone like Bush can hide in plain site, using his name recognition and pundit-granted front-runner status as a springboard to pull further ahead, raking in even more bucks while saying virtually nothing of substance.

That system doesn't just cheat other serious candidates out of a real chance to get their messages out, it cheats voters out of a real choice.

By his departure, Quayle has called attention to the excessive role money plays in American politics and the need to change that system. In doing that, the often-hapless Quayle may have accomplished more than he ever did as vice president or probably ever could as president.

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