WASHINGTON — POLITICAL fortunes have ebbed and flowed during the past two years, but the public image of Vice President Dan Quayle remains - dismal. During seven months of the Iraqi confrontation, Mr. Quayle was a visible and vocal part of the inner circle of White House decisionmakers, the so-called Big Eight.
His views were like those of President Bush himself, in favor of strong military action, sooner rather than later, according to Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, who sat in on some White House meetings.
Yet Quayle's voice in the councils of power does not appear to have added an ounce of gravity to his public persona.
Instead, he is continuing a phenomenal run as the butt of late-night television jokes. "Marion Barry, Manuel Noriega jokes come and go, but Dan Quayle jokes are forever," says S. Robert Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.
The focus of the jokes, as of his deeper image problems, is the perception that he is young, relatively inexperienced, and untried by hard knocks or the struggle for achievement.
"On a certain gut level, Dan Quayle is unable to shake the visual image of being something of a boy among men," says political scientist Bruce Miroff at the State University of New York at Albany. Dr. Miroff specializes in the role that image plays in presidential power. The Gulf episode may have escalated doubts about Quayle's credibility, he says, because many people actively speculated on "what if Dan Quayle were president now, commander-in-chief?"
On the other hand, Washington insiders seldom slight Quayle's active and competent performance as vice president. He has raised more than $16 million for Republican candidates around the country, says his press secretary, David Beckwith, surpassing previous vice presidents as a fund raiser.
He has also been an outspoken conservative, often putting a hard line on administration policy while Bush assumes the more constrained role of diplomat-in-chief.
Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana described Quayle at a Monitor breakfast early this month as "reasonably competent and getting better" at most of his tasks. Is he ready to be commander in chief? "Most people say no," said Mr. Lugar.
That could stand as the conventional assessment of Quayle. But doing competent work is not enough to quell the restlessness that keeps rising from Republican ranks.
A small parade of names has been promoted in Republican circles over the past year to replace Quayle as Bush's running mate for 1992: Secretary of State James Baker III, former drug czar William Bennett, Defense Secretary Richard Cheney, and most recently Joint Chiefs chairman Colin Powell - a demographic dream ticket for the GOP.
In a survey released last week by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, 44 percent of Republicans thought Bush should bump Quayle from the ticket in 1992. And 42 percent thought Quayle should stay.
Among all voters, 51 percent favored bumping Quayle in 1992. The vice president's fortunes have slipped by this measure. In a Washington Post poll taken more than a year and a half ago, 43 percent said Bush should pick someone else in 1992, and 38 percent thought Quayle should stay.
When matched head-on with General Powell in a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll three weeks ago, Powell was preferred by 50 percent, Quayle by 23 percent, as Bush's '92 running mate.
Little doubt surfaces anywhere, however, that Bush will keep Quayle. Unless the president moves into serious political trouble as the 1992 election closes in, then he is not expected to forego his loyalty and throw his own original judgment into question by bumping Quayle.
The problem for Quayle then - apart from the personal burden of living through the ridicule - is to rehabilitate his image in time to lead his party six years from now. But difficult image problems go with the vice presidency. The better he performs his role as a quiet and loyal part of the Bush team, says Mr. Beckwith, the less press coverage he gets: "It's not an office you can fly high in. With all due respect [to the office], people don't care about the vice president."
Quayle and staff are saddled with the immovable baggage of the 1988 campaign, when he became a Vietnam-avoiding former reservist and wealthy scion of privilege in the public mind. His youthful good looks, rather than taking on a Kennedy-like vigor, added to an unserious, fraternity-boy image.
The next big chance to revise that image will probably be the 1992 campaign, when he will be an active surrogate for the president and win prominent press coverage again.
It will not make him a war hero, but if he continues to carry on gamely under the slings and arrows of comedian Jay Leno and Saturday Night Live, then perhaps the public will grant him some weight as a serious survivor.