WASHINGTON. — WASHINGTON -- Dan Quayle road-tested some possible 1992 campaign themes last week during a day-long trip to Chicago and Philadelphia, and it was apparent some in his audiences have a new appreciation for their vice president.
In Chicago, Mr. Quayle spoke to the national convention of the American Medical Association. Before the speech, I wandered through the audience asking people their impressions of the vice president. To my surprise, the six people with whom I spoke all had high praise for Mr. Quayle.
Robert Dietrich said, ''My overall impression of him has markedly improved since the president's illness and watching him handle the press and various questions. He was a total unknown prior to that time, even during the 1988 campaign when the campaign staff kept him out in the hinterlands so that the majority of us never got to know him.''
Dr. Harriett Opfell of Orange, Calif., believes ''his credibility has increased in just recent months because of Bush's illness. He's been more visible. He's made more positive statements. I like what I'm seeing and reading.''
Mert Scholten, an AMA staff member, said, ''My impression has been favorable. I think he's done a commendable job and shown he has grown in experience and seems to be maturing in the position as time goes by.'' Ms. Scholten believes Quayle could handle the presidency if he had to.
Nancy Wilson said, ''The press has been very hard on Vice President Quayle. I understand he is a very intelligent man. I'm certain President Bush would not have selected him if he was not. I give him lots of credit. He's had a hard job.''
James Hickox of Houston said he wouldn't panic if Mr. Quayle became president. Mr. Hickox also praised Mr. Quayle's ''demeanor'' during Mr. Bush's illness.
Regina Benjamin of Mobile thinks Mr. Quayle ''is doing as good a job as any other vice president, and probably better. He's gotten a bad rap from the press.'' Ms. Benjamin questioned the motives of the press: ''If you can't get to the president, you go after the next best.'' She also said she would feel comfortable with a President Quayle.
At a news conference and later at a Republican fund-raising event in Philadelphia, Mr. Quayle displayed a sharp ideological edge.
He made news when he suggested that states might wish to pass laws requiring doctors to be tested for AIDS. Mr. Quayle suggested that the public health was more important than any perceived right of an infected doctor to keep his illness a secret. When asked about calls for spending more to find a cure for AIDS, Mr. Quayle said that more federal money is spent on AIDS research and treatment relative to the number of victims than any other disease. In a statement that will appeal to a lot of people who believe AIDS has received too much attention to the detriment of other diseases from which more people suffer, Mr. Quayle said AIDS research is ''getting more than its fair share.''
In Philadelphia, Mr. Quayle tested a theme that might become the anthem of the '92 campaign. Democrats, he said, are the party of ''higher taxes, socialized medicine, more government regulation and quotas.'' He plugged freedom of choice in education and the president's crime package, saying it was time to put the ''victim's rights ahead of the criminal's rights.''
Mr. Quayle said next year's campaign would be about ''our agenda versus no agenda; our actions versus their inaction. I can't wait for the campaign to begin.''
Sounding like an Oldsmobile commercial, which targets young consumers, Mr. Quayle characterized the GOP as ''the party of a new generation.''
Throughout the day, Mr. Quayle displayed a self-confidence, affability and ease that suggests he is overcoming the timidity that characterized the first half of his term. Then, he was shadowed by a ''gaffe patrol'' that followed his every move and word, hoping to record a malapropism.
Now that he exhibits consistency and credibility, most of the press, especially television, ignores him. Mr. Quayle told me in the first months after he took office that he would not respond in kind to the low humor and personal attacks, but would just do his job and let people say what they want.
That strategy is paying off.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.