Quayle has yet to convince GOP he's heavier than air



WASHINGTON -- Just when we thought it was safe to go back into the water, here comes Dan Quayle as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. It is an unlikely scenario.

The former vice president's intentions were signaled first last week when he agreed to an extended interview with the New York Times, then effectively confirmed when word leaked out about his new book, in which he reportedly settles some old scores and tries to explain himself.

Quayle now will be making the rounds of the television talk shows and embarking on a book promotion tour reportedly focused heavily on the South and West that presumably would offer the friendliest market for his writing -- and, not incidentally, for his politics.

What is missing from this initiative is any convincing case for Republicans to make him their nominee in 1996. Whether or not it is justified, the hard truth about the Indiana Republican is that he has never lived down the jokes about himself that raise doubts about whether he has the gravitas for the presidency.

There are, of course, many conservative Republicans who believe Quayle has been unfairly victimized by the press and who applaud his commitment to family values as a centerpiece of his political appeal. That reputation has made him a prized speaker for conservative party audiences in raising money.

It is also obvious that there is no clear favorite of the religious right among the Republicans who are jockeying for early position. Many of these Republicans have doubts about Jack Kemp and question whether Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas has the appeal to be a successful national candidate. William Bennett, the former secretary of education, is popular but not likely to run.

So there is a constituency of sorts for Quayle. But, in terms of a campaign that would reach a broader cross section of Republicans who will vote in primaries, this lingering image as a lightweight means that Quayle would have no margin for error. Even the most minor gaffe on the campaign trail would trigger another round of all the old stories about Quayle's history of making gaffes. That may not be fair, but it is the real world of politics today.

Nor does the former vice president have any ties to the George Bush network that might broaden his base. Bush himself showed his customary loyalty to Quayle, but it was never any secret that some of those closest to Bush would have liked to see Quayle dropped from the 1992 ticket if the political consequences would not have been worse than from keeping him.

The problem for candidate Quayle, however, is less the attitude of these political figures than the lingering bad taste left in the mouths of so many mainstream conservative Republicans by the moralistic cast of the 1992 convention at Houston.

Neither Quayle nor his advisers were responsible for the mistakes made there, but he is inevitably identified with it because one of the speeches that was seen as part of the problem was delivered by his wife, Marilyn. Moreover, much of Quayle's support now comes from those who share his view of family values as a central issue and who saw nothing untoward in the moralistic tone at Houston.

The Republican presidential picture is quintessentially muddled these days. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole leads the opinion polls simply because he is the best known. Former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney is actively preparing for a campaign, and former Secretary of State James Baker is hinting broadly that he also intends to run. Kemp, Gramm, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander and South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell are likely competitors. Despite their tactical disclaimers as they run for re-election, Gov. Pete Wilson of California and Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts are considered possibilities if they survive in November.

What is most obvious so far, however, is that none has a significant assured constituency for 1996. And none has yet sent a message that has excited the rank-and-file Republicans in critical early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

So it is probably not surprising that Dan Quayle intends to push himself into the equation. He would be less than human if he did not yearn for some political vindication after all the abuse he has suffered. And it is always possible that Quayle can dissolve the doubts about his weight by the strength of his performance. But it won't be easy.

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