HOUSTON -- Four years ago, Dan Quayle introduced himself to the nation's television screens by bounding onto the New Orleans dock where Republican presidential nominee George Bush had just proclaimed him to be his running mate.
Mr. Quayle, beside himself with undisguised glee, grabbed and hugged Mr. Bush and immediately launched into the role he has played ever since: the all-out cheerleader for, and defender of, the man who took what has turned out to be a very big gamble on him.
As Vice President Quayle awaits his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention here tonight, his exuberance has been somewhat overshadowed by the widespread criticism and even ridicule that his performance has generated. Yet he perseveres with a doggedness and a loyalty to his political benefactor that wins him admiration among the faithful, particularly in the party's most conservative ranks.
In advance of his acceptance speech tonight, Mr. Quayle has been making the rounds of state delegations to assure them that he intends to "reintroduce" himself to the American people to counter his negative image.
On NBC's "Today" show, he charged that the news media had caricatured him in 1988 and thereafter "had a lot invested in making sure the caricature didn't change."
"I'm determined to change that," he said. "I hope by the end of the campaign, people will see who I really am and where I come from, and the values that I have."
To that end, he has been telling audiences here about his small-town roots in Huntington, Ind., and his attendance in public schools to counter the impression that he was a sheltered rich kid as the grandson of wealthy newspaper publisher Eugene C. Pulliam. A video is to be shown at the convention tonight $H depicting Mr. Quayle's boyhood, complete with family movies.
Mr. Quayle's reward for his unwavering service to Mr. Bush and the party has been the president's unflagging public support and an unchallenged place on the GOP ticket for a second time, despite deep misgivings among many Republicans that his dismal ratings in the polls could cost Mr. Bush re-election in a very close race.
In a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, voters by 46 percent to 40 percent said Mr. Bush should have dumped Mr. Quayle, including 32 percent of Republicans surveyed; a majority of Republicans said they would approve if Mr. Bush did drop him from the ticket. An NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll last week showed that 52 percent of voters view Mr. Quayle negatively, an all-time high.
In the 1988 campaign, when allegations flew that Mr. Quayle had ducked service in Vietnam by joining the Indiana National Guard with the help of family friends, and when various campaign missteps made him the subject of national laughter, he was a political burden that Mr. Bush was able to bear because of the opposition. The choice between Mr. Bush and Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis was an easy one for most voters, and they never had to look past the presidential line at the running mates to make their decision. Many Republicans fear that this year could be different. With Mr. Bush trailing Democratic nominee Bill Clinton by more than 20 percentage points in some polls, they are concerned that if voters look to the running mates, Mr. Quayle could be the margin of Mr. Bush's defeat.
That possibility certainly has not been lost on Mr. Clinton, who has been bragging on his choice of running mate, Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, ever since he made it. On their joint bus trips across small-town America, Mr. Clinton often leads off his speeches by comparing his selection with Mr. Bush's choice of Mr. Quayle four years ago. The remark always draws wild cheers.
A recent CNN-Time poll found 63 percent of those surveyed said they thought Mr. Gore was qualified to be president, while only 21 percent thought Mr. Quayle was. For all that, Mr. Quayle has emerged in Mr. Bush's most dire hour of political need as an aggressive and, at least among conservatives, effective defender.
While in manner and style he is still a far cry from the most celebrated vice-presidential hatchet men on the stump -- Richard M. Nixon in 1952 and 1956 and Spiro T. Agnew in 1968 and 1972 -- Mr. Quayle has turned up the heat on the Democrats with some of the same time-honored oratorical weapons. He calls the Democratic ticket mates just another pair of "tax-and-spend liberals" masquerading as Southern moderates. And he does battle with what he calls the country's "cultural elite" in the fields of entertainment, communications and academia just as Mr. Agnew did, though with less venom so far.