INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis. Since our culture began coming apart in the 1960s over the question of traditional values, presidential candidates have won the White House when they bypassed the elitists in the press and entertainment industries and connected directly to people who care more about such things.
This strategy has worked particularly well for Republicans, though Jimmy Carter made it work for him in 1976.
Now, Vice President Quayle has begun using it. In a speech to more than 15,000 Southern Baptists, Mr. Quayle repeatedly brought them to their feet with such lines as ''Moral values are what the American people care most about.'' Responding to criticism from Hollywood following his ''Murphy Brown'' speech last month, Mr. Quayle repeatedly identified himself with the average, misunderstood voter who feels morally and religiously slandered. He said, ''In the heart of America, in the homes and workplaces and churches, the message is heard.''
In an interview on Air Force Two, he said, ''The American people know what I'm talking about.''
Indeed they do. The economy is important, but given a choice between a balanced budget and a physically and morally safe environment, they would choose safety over deficits.
The vice president's staff believes that taking the cultural issues to the front of the campaign, and linking them to a call for a Republican Congress that will act as the agent of economic change most people say they want, is the key to winning a second term. Staffers view the surprise victory of former television commentator Bruce Herschenson in the California Republican primary and the prospect of two socially liberal opponents to President Bush as an opportunity to emphasize the issues that are uniquely theirs.
Mr. Quayle also thinks the election will be a two-man race between the president and Ross Perot. He rarely mentions Bill Clinton. While Mr. Perot is hot now, Mr. Quayle believes his
popularity will fade by the fall and that his pro-abortion stand (his wife is associated with Planned Parenthood in Texas) and other quirky social views will cause many conservatives to think twice before voting for him.
Asked about one of the most volatile issues of all, homosexuality, Quayle said the life style is ''mostly a choice'' and that the ''model'' for Americans ought to be a man and woman who are married. He neither backs down nor apologizes for anything. He is a different man from the pummeled candidate of four years ago.
Prior to his prepared remarks to the Southern Baptists, Mr. Quayle ran down a list that could be an agenda for the fall campaign: ''This has been a good year for our shared values. In the Middle East, our hostages were freed. People are again free to worship God from the Gulf of Finland to the Sea of Japan. The evil empire is history. Church bells are ringing in Russia. And there is justice in the nation's capital: Clarence Thomas sits on the Supreme Court of the United States.''
The vice president is careful to note, as he did to the Baptists, that a renewal of traditional cultural values will not be accomplished primarily by government: ''It's our work, the work of our churches, the work of each person, responding each day (( to the hard questions of life and faith. It's the work of choosing wisely. Choosing to live in falsehood or fidelity. Choosing to follow man in his foolish ways -- or the Son of Man who walked the way of love and mercy, full of grace and truth.''
This stuff is red meat to the old Reagan coalition, but that meat which Mr. Quayle is setting before the public will spoil unless President Bush picks it up and specifies not only where America and its ''cultural elites'' have gone wrong, but where he believes America should go and what he will do to help take us there.
Some Americans are flirting with Ross Perot because the guy who brought them to the dance, George Bush, isn't paying attention to their concerns. If Mr. Bush begins to take those concerns seriously, lambasting the liberal agenda for its failures, they may take one more turn around the floor with him before changing partners in 1996. And if that happens, a lot of the credit will go to Dan Quayle for selecting the issues that won the election.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.