We Want New Veep But Like Dan Quayle

VICE President Dan Quayle is a popular political figure. Repeat: Vice President Dan Quayle is a popular political figure. Dan Quayle. The supposedly laughable, supposedly scorned junior achiever who's spent nearly three years in the political cartoonists' crosshairs. Dan butt-of-all-jokes Quayle, George Bush's greatest goof, the Democrats' 1996 godsend, is popular. Not beloved, to be sure. Not seen as qualified to be president. But popular, and thus equipped to win public confidence.

This suggestion sounds outlandish because it's been obscured by a better story - Quayle's failure to overcome the hapless image he carried into office more than two years ago. When President Bush suffered a heart flutter this month, the media focus naturally fell on Quayle's inadequacies.

But the subtext to this story is that Quayle is not quite the political lightweight he's presumed to be. The same polls that document his shortcomings in the public mind also, upon closer inspection, present him with some surprising positives.

Overall popularity is one. At first glance this gauge looked bad for Quayle. In a CBS News/New York Times poll this month, just 19 percent of respondents expressed a favorable opinion of him. But that doesn't mean the remaining 71 percent had an unfavorable view of Quayle. Thirty-two percent said they viewed Quayle unfavorably. The rest, 47 percent, were undecided.

It gets better for Quayle. A Gallup question on his popularity, also done early this month, didn't give respondents the option of saying they were undecided. It just asked them to give him a number grade between plus five and minus five. Anything above zero is considered favorable; anything below, unfavorable. Gallup's result: A 64 percent favorability rating for the veep. That's roughly the same as if all the undecideds in the CBS/Times poll, pushed to make a decision, had come down in favor of Quayle .

Conclusion: Dan Quayle enjoys a sizable chunk of favorably inclined public opinion.

WHERE does a 64 percent favorability rating rank Quayle in the political pantheon? Worse than six of the seven previous vice presidents at roughly this point in their tenures - but by less of a margin than you'd expect. George Bush as vice president had a 70 percent favorability rating. Hubert Humphrey's rating was 69 percent favorable. So was Walter Mondale's. Quayle's 64 starts to look acceptable.

Another relative positive for Quayle is his job approval as vice president. Gallup found 50 percent approving of Quayle's performance in office and 25 percent with no opinion. An ABC News/Washington Post poll, which pushed undecideds to take a stand, gave Quayle a 56 percent job approval rating. And even more people, 61 percent, said having Quayle as vice president is not something that worries them.

There's more tolerable news for Quayle. Gallup's poll found him fairly highly rated for his knowledge of national issues (61 percent) and for standing up for his beliefs (65 percent). More than half (52 percent) called him experienced in government. Respondents split about evenly on his understanding of complex issues, knowledge of foreign affairs, and judgment in a crisis - not an inspiring showing, but not a damning one, either.

On what quality was Quayle rated most poorly? Communicating with the American people, at just 36 percent approval. Thus a perceived lack of ability is not Quayle's greatest shortcoming. It's the more addressable problem of communication.

This is not to minimize Quayle's difficulties with the American people. Anywhere from a majority (in the ABC/Post poll) to just under half (in Gallup and USA Today polls) believe he is unqualified to be president. Most would prefer that Bush pick another running mate next year.

That's not exactly a vote of confidence. But poll results show that neither is Quayle the pariah pundits make him out to be. Liking a man is not enough to want him to be president. But despite all the negative press he's received, most Americans like Dan Quayle. And that's a start.

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