BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Plenty of politicians are suddenly itching to overhaul the Internal Revenue Service. But Dan Quayle was for tax reform before tax reform was cool, as he is reminding audiences around the country these days.
Over pork barbecue, blackberry cobbler and pitchers of iced tea, he tells the Birmingham Rotary Club about the modified flat tax he proposed in the 1980s. Simplicity, Efficiency, Lower rates and Fairness, it was called. SELF, for short.
"S-E-L-F," Quayle says, pronouncing each letter carefully. "You can trust me on the spelling of that." The room erupts with knowing laughter.
Five years after he and President George Bush were turned out of office, Quayle is coming back. He makes no effort to disguise what he's unofficially launched: an all-out try for the presidency.
"I'm clearly thinking about it," he repeats with a boyish grin as he races from appearance to appearance, picking up IOUs from local Republican candidates and recruiting donors for his fledgling political operation.
His recent speeches have drawn heavy applause from rank-and-file Republicans and positive notices in the national press. In part, that may reflect the low expectations many hold for him as a campaigner; the mere fact he spoke for 30 minutes without notes at a Republican conference in August was widely noted.
Others who have seen him are convinced he's a changed man.
'Like night and day'
"There's a whole new Dan Quayle," says Steve Roberts, a veteran Republican Party official from Iowa. "He's more self-confident, articulate, relaxed. He's got a good sense of humor. The difference is like night and day."
Still, for many Republicans, the question will be: Is Dan Quayle the candidate who can win back the White House for the party in 2000? The answer, in Republican circles in Washington, is no.
"He's never going to get the respect around here," concedes a former aide.
Outside the beltway, however, where the nomination will be decided, Quayle enjoys celebrity status. Conservatives remember his early emphasis on family values, including his attack on television's Murphy Brown for having a baby out of wedlock. To many who feel he was unfairly portrayed as a dunce by the liberal media, Quayle is a hero.
"He's weathered so many storms," says Greg Ray, 32, of Huntsville, Ala.. "He doesn't back down." Ray, who heard Quayle speak in the state capital recently, added that he would "absolutely" vote for him for president.
With no clear favorite for the Republican nomination, it would be a mistake to write anyone off at this early stage, Quayle included.
"He'll surprise a lot of people," predicts Bob Bennett, the Ohio Republican chairman, who ranks Quayle in the first tier of Republican presidential contenders. "He's going around doing all the things he should be doing."
'I'm working everybody'
Quayle has been to 37 states this year. On Oct. 26, he will make his initial visit to New Hampshire, site of the first primary, to address the Republican Party's fall dinner. "I'm working everybody," Quayle says in an interview.
He's helping Republican candidates in congressional and state races raise money for their campaigns. In a single day last spring, Quayle and Jim Gilmore, the Republican nominee for governor of Virginia, raked in about $1 million.
He's also building his own fund-raising machine. His political action committee has raised $1.6 million toward its $2 million goal this year. Only Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's and House Speaker Newt Gingrich's PACs have collected more, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Quayle is doing much of the fund raising himself, through private breakfasts, lunches and dinners with supporters. Some money will be donated to other candidates. But most will be used to pay for his PAC and its staff of 12.
Friends say Quayle does not underestimate how tough it will be to win. Overcoming his past may turn out to be his biggest challenge. As vice president, he was treated as a long-running joke by late-night TV comics. Shreds of damaging information, such as his famous misspelling of "potato-e," are permanently embedded in the public's memory.
Showing a 'different side'
To soften their impact, Quayle sprinkles self-deprecating humor, such as spelling jokes, into his speeches. "You've got to humble yourself a little bit," he explains. "Let people see a little different side than they're used to" and "build it into an asset."
At the same time, he is going to great lengths to keep his distance from Washington and the national press corps. He's shifted his base of operations to the desert Southwest, though his wife, Marilyn, still works for a law firm based in Indianapolis, their old hometown. From their new house in Paradise Valley, Ariz., it's a short hop to California, the mother lode of campaign money and delegate votes. He makes the trip about twice a month.