BOSTON -- No race seems too small this fall for Dan Quayle.
"He's on the road three or four times a week actually campaigning for attorney general candidates, candidates for state auditor, county races, candidates for the state legislature -- just as he's doing here today," Ray Shamie, the Massachusetts Republican Party chairman, told several hundred people at a $50-a-ticket fund-raising reception in Boston.
Beside him, Mr. Quayle, smiling gamely, shared a crowded hotel ballroom stage with dozens of political hopefuls largely unknown beyond their own backyards.
"He's making an important investment in the future of the Republican Party," Mr. Shamie continued.
And, of course, in the future of Dan Quayle.
These days, the vice president is nearing the end of an aggressive push for Republican candidates in more than 40 states.
Compared with the campaign that brought him to national attention two autumns ago, this one has gone largely unnoticed. But Republican insiders are watching.
"They have become comfortable with his wooden style," says a top party aide in Washington, warning that it would be a mistake to dismiss the importance of Mr. Quayle's political travels. "I'm not saying I'd go to work for him, but he could be a serious presidential contender in 1996. That's how our system works."
Tracing a well-worn vice-presidential trail, he has picked up IOUs from hundreds of Republican candidates by endorsing them and, more important, by raising more than $16 million for their campaigns, according to estimates by Quayle staffers.
When Mr. Quayle took office last year, a central question in both parties was whether local Republicans would be embarrassed to be seen with him, diminishing his value as a surrogate for President Bush.
That doesn't seem to have happened. Instead, in recent days it was Mr. Bush himself who drew attention for getting cold-shouldered by members of his own party.
For Mr. Quayle, the bad news is that none of this has improved his largely negative ratings in the polls, which have not changed appreciably since the 1988 campaign. A joint NBC-Wall Street Journal survey released last week showed that 38 percent rated him unfavorably while 27 percent viewed him positively.
Because he holds a job that affords few opportunities to shine, it may not be surprising that 42 percent of Americans questioned in a recent CBS News-New York Times poll said they did not know enough about Mr. Quayle to venture an opinion about him.
But the fact that the vast majority say they are nervous about the idea of him as president continues to cast a shadow over his role. Quayle aides are still defensive, for example, over criticism that he was virtually invisible during the first weeks of the Persian Gulf crisis.
More recently, his advisers have quietly passed word of his outspoken objections in the inner councils of the White House to the strategy of accommodation with congressional Democrats on the budget. Besides countering the impression that he was not involved in substantive matters, those reports also serve to reinforce Mr. Quayle's ties to the party's congressional and conservative wings, which are strongly critical of the administration's handling of the budget issue.
But Mr. Quayle himself has been careful not to differ publicly with Mr. Bush, who, when he was vice president, made a fetish out of loyalty to the president, once saying that he "blindly" supported Ronald Reagan.
Claims by Quayle aides that Mr. Bush is taking political advice from the vice president were bolstered by the president's endorsement in California Friday of term limits on members of Congress. Mr. Quayle, who proposed such a plan as a freshman congressman in 1977, has been advocating the notion, to considerable partisan applause, at campaign events across the country this month.
With the election just over a week away, Mr. Quayle is spreading the administration's pre-election message, in essence blaming Democrats in Congress for Mr. Bush's decision to break his "no new taxes" campaign promise and calling on voters to send Republicans to Washington instead.
But Mr. Quayle, who admits political trends have "been going the other way" for Republicans over the past couple of weeks, is also protecting himself from any criticism of campaign efforts by pointing out that voters aren't going to support a particular Republican "because I or someone else" endorses him.
As Mr. Quayle hits places around the country for the second or third time since taking office, some of the questions about his political future and his abilities are no longer being asked. But as a daylong campaign trip Thursday to New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts showed, they haven't disappeared entirely.
During an impromptu news conference at a roadside fruit stand Lincoln, Mass., the candidate Mr. Quayle had come to assist, gubernatorial hopeful William Weld, condescendingly praised the vice president's handling of a "trick question."
And when Mr. Quayle was asked whether his campaign efforts weren't also designed to keep himself on the national ticket in 1992, he replied curtly, "I'm campaigning for Bill Weld."
At other times, however, Mr. Quayle good-naturedly tried to laugh off his past gaffes.
When a Republican congressional candidate in Concord, Mass. jokingly mentioned "happy campers," a reference to a 1989 incident in which Mr. Quayle was accused of insulting natives in American Samoa, Mr. Quayle responded that "come Nov. 6, George Bush will be a happy camper because you're going to be elected to the Congress."
At the same rally, he showed his zest for campaigning by plunging disarmingly into a noisy crowd of protesters and shaking hands with as many people as he could.