IF you want to start an argument in Washington just say something nice about Dan Quayle. Mention that when he was a senator his neighbors liked him - that he was always modest and companionable. Remind his critics that back in Indiana, where the people know him best, Mr. Quayle is quite popular. They will snort. This is not just political opposition. It is utter contempt for a man who is perceived as a weak sister, someone lacking in the backbone needed in the presidency.
Remind you of anyone? Vice President Bush was suffering from a similar, widespread perception (particularly among Democrats) right up until he was nominated. Indeed, Mr. Bush never really lost his wimpish image in the eyes of many of his detractors until he showed his mettle in the war in the Gulf.
Bush, of course, was never a wimp. He'd had a heroic World War II record. Now he has emerged as he always has been: strong, resolute, courageous.
Quayle is, as they say, no George Bush - not when war records are compared. Quayle found a safe refuge in the National Guard during the Vietnam war. That's a record he will have a hard time living down. But he did go into the military. And how many among his critics were themselves escaping that unpopular war by extending their years or their sons' years in college?
I was recently reminded in the illustrated history, "The Civil War," that "The fathers of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt paid substitutes. So did Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan and two future presidents, Chester A. Arthur and Grover Cleveland."
This is not cited to excuse people of wealth and privilege for finding a way out of military service. It is just to suggest that precedent doesn't show that Quayle's war record is a bar, of itself, to the presidency.
That's what is bothering a lot of people, mainly Democrats, but many Republicans too: that Dan Quayle might become president someday. They want Bush to drop him in '92. Some observers even say they see it happening. They're wrong.
A new Gallup Poll is instructive on this point. It shows that among Republicans, or Republican-leaning voters, support for Quayle remaining on the ticket is at 50 percent. That may not sound high. But those same Republicans, when asked what substitute they might like, weren't enthusiastic about anyone else. Robert Dole, James Baker, Richard Cheney, and Colin Powell drew some support - but none was over 21 percent.
There's no "replace Quayle" movement among Republicans, never mind what Democrats think.
Furthermore, the president appreciates Quayle as a running mate. He knows that Quayle and the bad press aimed at him after receiving the No. 2 slot dragged down the Bush presidential bid a few percentage points in the polls. But that didn't last long. Later polls showed that Quayle's presence at Bush's side in the campaign was either neutral, or it helped Bush some.
More than anything else, the president believes that Quayle helped him immensely among conservative voters who have always (up until the recent war, of course) felt that Bush was too liberal for them. Then, too, Bush did benefit from the way Quayle drew so much criticism - from Democrats and the media - away from Bush and toward himself.
Finally, like most people when they really get to know Dan Quayle, Bush finds him personable, warm, and hard-working. The Bushes are fond of the Quayles. That's a factor that should not be overlooked by those who are saying that Bush is looking for another person on his ticket.
At this point it seems certain that the Bush-Quayle combine will prevail in the next election. And that Quayle will be a candidate for president in 1996.
Will a "new" Quayle emerge, one who turns out to be intelligent, strong, a man of character who is a formidable - and winning - candidate? Right now that hardly seems possible. But don't write it off. I'm not sure we know the real Dan Quayle yet. There may be much more to the man than meets the eye. Remember what happened to Bush the Wimp.