Vice President Struggles To Overcome Poor Image

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

LAST night, the GOP renominated as George Bush's running mate the most mocked man in America.

Tonight, Dan Quayle's aides are touting a "defiant" speech from a vice president who is mired again in the most intensive media derision since the first weeks after the New Orleans convention four years ago.

This is Mr. Quayle's best chance in four years to get the nation's attention on his own terms, to get Americans to meet him again, to remake their impression of him.

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Raising the public esteem of the vice president will be extraordinarily difficult, and some political experts doubt that it can be done.

In recent weeks, he has been subjected to an intensive rumor campaign that he might be dumped from the Republican ticket. And for months he has been the goat of a new surge of late-night jokes on national television.

The derision is no trivial matter. "This man is a joke, and I don't think he'll ever be anything else," says Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia politics professor, who insists that Quayle is a far more serious and able politician than his image conveys.

"Comedians have created a kind of ventriloquist's dummy out of Dan Quayle," says S. Robert Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

His image, says Dr. Sabato, "is almost cast in stone."

Quayle's critique of the values purveyed on the sitcom "Murphy Brown" and held by the cultural "elite" have added an edge of hostility to the jokes about him.

Spelling "potato" wrong has not helped either.

In his four years on the national stage, he has been an unusually active fund-raiser for Republicans and liaison to conservative networks. He has made a notable and controversial mark on serious issues, especially deregulation. His office is a central generator of ideas and initiatives in the administration.

But his introduction to the public was through a flurry of early news reports portraying a wealthy, privileged young man of modest talents whose parents had helped him into law school and out of Vietnam service.

Few if any of the specific allegations about Quayle were ever proved. But the news media was already engaged in what Sabato calls "the longest feeding frenzy in American history that wasn't a scandal." The public impression of him as a flustered lightweight has hardly budged at all.

His poll ratings have been "on the floor" for about the last six months and negative views of Quayle run about twice the number of positive, says Republican pollster Ed Goeas.

He has fared even worse in news reports. Dr. Lichter, whose organization monitors network newscasts, says that television coverage of Quayle was roughly balanced through most of his term. But in this primary season, Quayle has gotten much more attention. Reports are 3 to 1 negative, Lichter says.

Over the past four years, Quayle has been the subject of more television jokes than anyone but the president himself. But the two are not comparable, notes Lichter. A president is always the focus of massive attention and his daily activities provide material for comics. Vice presidents normally get little attention.

Negative views of Quayle are so entrenched by now that when David Broder and Robert Woodward of the Washington Post wrote an exhaustive series on Quayle that credited him with some political savvy, it was greeted with widespread skepticism and even conspiracy theories.

"The very idea that Quayle was not a complete blithering idiot was considered heretical," says Sabato. When the public image of a person is so jarringly at odds with his reputation among friends and associates, he says, "something's wrong with the news coverage."

The media image is "not true," says Mr. Goeas. "My belief is that Dan Quayle is one of the most underestimated politicians in America today."

Quayle will have an opportunity tonight to show competence in front of a friendly live audience and a massive viewership. But his more important test will come this fall when he debates the Democrats' vice presidential nominee, Sen. Albert Gore Jr.

Expectations are so high that the studious Mr. Gore will trounce Quayle in a debate that many familiar with Quayle's career believe he can beat those expectations - and perhaps even out-debate Gore.

Such a performance might be his best chance to show his intellectual competence and poise.

Quayle plans to lay out his life story tonight to combat the picture of coddled privilege that has stuck to him. He will also reaffirm his controversial views on family values - views that include a preference for two parents of different sexes for raising children.

"He's not going to back down," says his press secretary, David Beckwith.

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