WASHINGTON -- President Bush's election-year troubles may provide Dan Quayle with an opportunity for the much-ridiculed vice president to vindicate himself.
Advisers to Mr. Quayle say he can exploit his conservative credentials to help bring disenchanted right-wingers back into the Bush fold, and use his No. 2 position in the government to defend the president more aggressively than it would be appropriate for Mr. Bush to do himself.
"There's already a joke going around among conservatives, that Bush shouldn't worry because Quayle will pull him through," said Representative Mickey Edwards, R.-Okla, "I think Quayle over the last six months has already helped a great deal."
Further, as the president's chief surrogate on the campaign trail, Mr. Quayle can take advantage of his return to the spotlight to erase the poor impression created by his awkward entry into the 1988 contest, his advisers say.
"He's a terrific campaigner, he does a terrific job in small groups," said Sen. Warren B. Rudman, a New Hampshire Republican who accompanied the vice president on a couple of trips around that first-in-the nation primary state. "People told me later they thought he was nothing like the way he had been painted in the press."
But some conservative leaders say anger at Mr. Bush in their movement runs so deep that Mr. Quayle risks damaging his own credibility by defending the president.
"The question in 1988 was: 'Will Bush keep Quayle?' now it's: "Will Quayle keep Bush?' " said Betsy Hart, a former White House and Bush campaign aide who heads The Third Generation, a group of young conservative activists. "I think it does [Mr. Quayle] a disservice" to be vouching for the president's conservative philosophy.
"People will remember that in 1996," when Mr. Quayle is considered a likely presidential candidate, she added.
Patrick J. Buchanan, the conservative commentator who drew 37 percent of the Republican vote away from Mr. Bush in New Hampshire, is already belittling the vice president.
Campaigning the other day in Ellijay, Ga., a conservative mountain town, Mr. Buchanan drew loud applause and laughter when he referred to Mr. Quayle's forays into New Hampshire.
"Little Danny Quayle came up," he said. "We're after the pit bull, and they shouldn't send the pit puppy, because he'll get all chewed up."
Other political analysts contend that the sour condition of the U.S. economy is such an overriding issue with most of the electorate that the Quayle factor might not make much difference either way.
Even not being a factor would be an improvement for Mr. Quayle over 1988, though, his advisers say.
Ever since Mr. Bush surprised everyone by plucking Mr. Quayle from the Senate back benches, he has been dogged by questions about his qualifications for high office -- particularly the level of his intelligence.
But the vice president has made friends and allies within the White House who contend he is a talented politician who has worked hard to overcome shortcomings in his knowledge of government and policy.
As chief surrogate for Mr. Bush, Mr. Quayle and his team have mostly fashioned the message to defend the president against conservative attacks.
Mr. Quayle's most direct appeal so far came at conservative dinner in Washington last weekend when he described a fantasy, far-left administration headed by a Democratic president that he warned could be the result of Republicans failing to unite behind Mr. Bush.
"There is a lot to be said for that point of view," said Paul Weyrich, head of the Committee for a Free Congress, a conservative political action committee.
But he warned that Mr. Quayle must avoid direct, personal attacks on Mr. Buchanan if he wants to keep the bridge to conservatives open in 1996.
It may be too late.
Yesterday in Georgia, where the Bush campaign hopes to finish off the Buchanan candidacy next week, Mr. Quayle said the challenger was "masquerading as a true conservative."