LOS ANGELES -- Appearing on a television call-in show here the other day, Vice President Dan Quayle seemed to be trying to put a little space between himself and the rhetoric that so harshly attacked homosexuals at the Republican National Convention in Houston last month.
Questioned about the speeches of conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan and evangelist Pat Robertson, the vice president replied: "I don't think you heard any of that rhetoric coming from me. You didn't hear it coming from the president." On the contrary, he said, "We are the ones that have implemented a non-discrimination policy when it comes to gays and lesbians. That is the administration's record and we are proud of that record."
The issue isn't that clear, however, because the administration also opposes homosexuals serving in the military, because Quayle himself has made a point of refusing to countenance alternative lifestyles and because Bush and Quayle are running on a party platform conspicuously hostile to gays. But the politically revealing aspect of the exchange is the way these so-called family values issues seem to follow Quayle wherever he goes -- despite the evidence in opinion polls that voters are far more interested in the economy than in these concerns.
And that, in turn, leads to the question of how the Republicans can employ the vice president during the campaign without doing more harm than good. Opinion polls show his negatives continue to be much higher than his positives among the voters at large and that a substantial majority don't believe he is qualified to be president. Those are not the kind of findings that argue for giving Quayle the widest possible exposure to the most voters.
The response of the Bush-Quayle campaign has been essentially what it was four years ago. Quayle is being sent most often to secondary media markets and to appear before the most committed conservative Republicans, the one group with whom the vice president still has net positives in the polls. But that
doesn't mean he can be shielded from the national press or, often most importantly, local television news coverage in major markets.
As one leading Republican professional put it, "It's hard to know what to do with him."
To some degree, Quayle's problems are a function of media stereotyping. Because he was perceived originally as a lightweight with a penchant for blunders, a minor goof such as misspelling "potato" becomes certifying evidence that those first perceptions were accurate -- whatever the evidence to the contrary.
But the vice president has compounded the problem with his emphasis on "family values" issues. These are concerns that have a great deal of political resonance among the voters of the religious right, an important constituency for the Republicans and one in which Quayle is seen in positive rather than negative terms. They are also issues, however, that rank far down on the list of priorities of most voters.
Thus, when Quayle persists in his running feud with television over the "Murphy Brown" show, he appears to be trivializing the campaign in which voters are far more worried about their jobs than about whether a single mother deserves to be criticized. And such diversions add to the impression that Quayle is not heavy enough to be dealing with the serious questions on the campaign agenda.
There was never any objective evidence that Quayle cost President Bush any votes in 1988 despite the brouhaha about his credentials and his history in the National Guard during the war in Vietnam. But political professionals in both parties believe Bush has paid a price for Quayle because of what the choice says about the president's own judgment. Even now there are longtime Bush-supporting Republicans who privately rue the day he chose Quayle for his ticket.
By contrast, Democratic nominee Bill Clinton has been given generally high marks in the opinion polls for choosing Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee as his running mate.
Although the Republicans are convinced they can make political hay out of what they call Gore's extremism on environmental issues, there is no evidence in the polls that voters doubt his ability to serve as president should that become necessary.