Democrats pin bull's-eye on Quayle. Hope to use his nomination to raise doubts on Bush's judgment

Dan Quayle had better put on his National Guard helmet. The Democrats are coming after him. Senator Quayle of Indiana, the enthusiastic choice of George Bush for the vice-presidential spot, will be a central target for Democratic attacks in coming days.

The assaults are already becoming tough and personal.

Robert Strauss, a former Democratic national chairman who advises Michael Dukakis's campaign, blasts Mr. Quayle as ``vapid, and a nothing.'' Mr. Strauss adds: ``Most people who know him think that.''

Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, says of the Republicans: ``Their record is as empty as Dan Quayle's r'esum'e.''

Democrats hope to use Quayle, who is controversial even with many Republicans, to raise doubts about Mr. Bush's judgment.

Polls indicate that the Democrats may have found a vulnerable target.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey released Friday found that 50 percent of the voters think Quayle was a ``bad choice.'' Only 32 percent regard him as a good choice for the No. 2 spot.

Voters in Middle America clearly have their doubts. Monitor reporter Donald Rheem, interviewing in Norristown, Pa., during the past week, found widespread skepticism about Quayle. For instance, Robert McCall, an insurance company supervisor, says he leans toward Bush, but comments:

``I would have been 100 percent behind Bush at this point if he would have picked a [better] vice-presidential candidate. But he picked a jerk as far as I'm concerned, just a pretty face. Considering the really good candidates he had to choose from, like Elizabeth and Robert Dole, and Jack Kemp, he picked a loser.''

Margaret DeLuca, a nurse who says she is a Democrat, leans toward Bush, but worries: ``If anything happened and [Quayle] had to be president, it wouldn't be good.''

Linda Usuka, a homemaker who leans toward Mr. Dukakis, complains: ``Even if I liked Bush, [Quayle] might influence me not to vote for him.''

That's the sort of uneasiness Democratic leaders hope to play on.

At a breakfast meeting last week, Mr. Strauss reminded reporters that ``George Bush ... has only made one decision by himself'' in this campaign. ``That was to pick Quayle.''

Prior to the selection, Bush had challenged voters to ``Grade me by my choice,'' Strauss observes. But Strauss asserts that even Bush's campaign staff now realizes the choice was a mistake. Strauss says the Quayle selection goes to the heart of Bush's political judgment, and his qualifications for the Oval Office. He adds:

``If Mike Dukakis can make that case, ... then I think [he] will win this race.''

Strauss contends that Bush's campaign team tries to limit the dangers that Quayle poses to the ticket, so they have kept Quayle ``in a back alley, away from [the media], out of any exposure.''

Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says Quayle ``is going to be an issue.''

Drawing on information from a new Times-Mirror poll, Dr. Ornstein notes that two-thirds of Americans say they will not be influenced in their choice for the White House by the vice-presidential candidate.

``But Quayle as a symbol of George Bush's judgment'' could help Democrats mount an effective attack on Bush, he says.

That would be especially so, Ornstein continues, if Democrats combined the Quayle issue with other matters where Bush's judgment is in doubt, such as the Iran-contra affair, and White House dealings with Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the Panamanian strongman who has been indicted in Florida on drug charges.

It all ``suggests that George Bush just doesn't have good basic judgment'' - or so the Democrats can imply, Ornstein says.

The focus on Quayle seems likely to elevate the importance of the vice-presidential debate, scheduled for Oct. 5 in Omaha, Neb. When Quayle and Senator Bentsen go toe to toe, the attacks on Quayle will have heightened public interest, and probably assure a larger-than-usual audience.

There are also risks in all this for Democrats, however. Bentsen, for example, has scoffed at Quayle's qualifications. Dukakis has used Quayle to ridicule Bush's judgment. Other Democrats have derided Quayle as a legislative lightweight in the Senate.

Yet Quayle is a spirited debater. Though he occasionally misspeaks, he is also quick on his feet, as he has demonstrated in recent days on the campaign trail.

What happens if Quayle wins or at least holds his own in the Omaha debate against Bentsen? What will that say about the Democratic ticket?

The anti-Quayle strategy clearly carries risks of its own.

The presidential debate Sunday night in Winston-Salem, N.C., took place after the Monitor's deadline. Tomorrow's paper will include analysis of the debate.

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