VICE PRESIDENT Dan Quayle is becoming increasingly outspoken and active as the most consistently conservative top official in the White House. The character of his vice presidency is emerging as the months go by.
Mr. Quayle makes news with his words more often than did his mentor, George Bush, as vice president - even apart from his occasional gaffes. His talk is marked by less tact and stronger views than his predecessor gave vent to.
According to an administration official close to Quayle, he is also more active in the daily work of government than was Vice President Bush.
His image with the public as a lightweight has not improved. But conservative activists in Washington see in him a reliable and influential advocate in White House meetings as well as on Capitol Hill.
Quayle has also become an active speaker and a fundraiser for Republicans across the country, which can help him develop a national political network of his own. He has raised nearly $5 million for Republican candidates in the past nine months.
Quayle's particular specialty is national security - from the arcane theoretics of smart-weapons strategy to the guerrilla wars in Cambodia and El Salvador.
In some of these areas, especially the Strategic Defense Initiative, or ``star wars,'' he is considered genuinely knowledgeable by specialists. His influence is difficult to gauge, in part because he keeps his counsels with the president strictly private.
He is the single most consistent and outspoken high-ranking member of the administration in promoting SDI as a deployment, not just a research, program.
Last spring, when top administration officials met at Camp David to discuss the president's defense bill, support for some aspects of the SDI program was reportedly faltering. According to informed but second-hand accounts, Quayle made a persuasive pitch for the technical merits of keeping SDI on the deployment track.
Quayle is thought to have been especially influential in promoting the ``brilliant pebbles'' concept of swarms of relatively simple missiles placed in orbit to destroy hostile interballistic missiles early in their flights.
``Contrary to popular belief during the campaign,'' says Margot Carlisle, vice president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, ``he was very knowledgeable on such arcane subjects.
``This is the sort of area where he moves forward patiently and knowledgeably'' - belying the ``youngster image'' that goes with the vice presidency in general and Dan Quayle in particular, she notes.
``The views he's now expressing on SDI and skepticism of the Soviets,'' says Frank Gaffney, director of the Center for Security Policy and a member if Reagan's National Security Council staff, ``are long-held positions and frankly better thought through than the views of many in the administration.''
In recent weeks, Quayle was the voice in the Bush administration to offer the skeptical counterpoint to Secretary of State James Baker's optimism regarding Soviet perestroika, or restructuring of the economy. Quayle's skepticism that perestroika will succeed is shared, at least in general terms, by National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and other top Bush officials.
Quayle caused some stir in September when he told the Los Angeles Times editorial board that Reagan's promoting of star wars as an impenetrable shield was ``political jargon'' that overstated the program's prospects. No one for or against SDI disputed his assessment, however.
Quayle has lately been making his case for SDI on Capitol Hill, where the program is heading for large budget cuts in a House-Senate conference committee.
He is working at the role of being a key pipeline between the administration and Congress. He spends at least half of two days a week on Capitol Hill, working more on the overall relationship than on promoting particular issues except in crises.
``In my opinion,'' says conservative activist Paul Weyrich, ``he is much more accessible to members of the House and Senate than any other vice president'' at least through Spiro Agnew.
An administration official says that Quayle has put policy work for the president ahead of the outside politicking and networking that could help support him later. ``First, he has to be seen as a player,'' says the official. ``People have to feel they're schmoozing with someone of importance.'' He notes also that Quayle probably has the next seven years to build up political connections, assuming that Quayle's image is not such a liability that Bush would admit a mistake by dropping him from his re-election ticket.
Another White House official notes that Quayle was concerned early on that he would be cast as outside the mainstream of the administration if he was too active on conservative issues. But he has come to feel he is part of the ideological balance withing the adminstration. Hence Quayle has become more comfortable with his role.
Outsiders have noticed. About mid-summer, says Mr. Weyrich, Quayle began to be very accessible to conservative groups. ``This fellow is turning up everywhere.''
The Quayle skeptics remain legion. ``I think the idea that Dan Quayle can promote policies within the administration is highly problematic,'' says Ed Crane, president of the Cato Institute. ``He is not a very serious person.''
Many conservatives, however, believe that he is taken seriously in administration councils, largely because the president and his staff will back him up.
``He is a credible force,'' Weyrich says.