REMEMBER Dan Quayle? He dropped out of the presidential race even before he got into it. He said that raising funds made the effort too painful. Yet had he entered the fray he probably would be right in the midst of it today - with a good chance of winning. History tells us that former vice presidents usually gain the nomination of their party when they seek it. Unimpressed by Bob Dole, Lamar Alexander, and Steve Forbes, and fearful of Pat Buchanan, the Republican voters might well have turned to Quayle. His strong family-values message would have taken him far.
Well, there's one vice president, Al Gore, who is already gearing up for four years from now and who isn't likely to let anything get in the way of his quest. As a young congressman he made a brief run at the prize in 1988. The voters didn't take to him then. Indeed, Eugene McCarthy was saying recently how ''young Gore'' had disappointed the voters in Minnesota when they came out that year to hear him speak. Many people, he said, thought they were going to see the elder Albert Gore, the senator, who was a crowd-pleasing orator, and were therefore disappointed by the son's rather lackluster performance.
McCarthy, who had his crowds screaming for more when he stumped against President Johnson in 1964, has been watching the vice president. The former senator and presidential candidate spoke and answered questions recently at a gathering that marked the 30th anniversary of the Monitor breakfasts. He said afterward that he thought highly of ''young Gore'' and that he was upgrading him as a speaker.
For some time now Gore has been working hard at ridding himself of appearing to be a sober-sided, dull fellow.
He started out the breakfast by putting on a slide show featuring the five ''worst'' vice presidents. He conferred that honor on Spiro Agnew (in office 1969-1973), Andrew Johnson (1865), Aaron Burr (1801-1805), Schuyler Colfax (1869-1873), and Elbridge Gerry (1813-1814).
He noted that Woodrow Wilson's vice president, Thomas R. Marshall, stopped going to Cabinet meetings and went out to make money on the lecture circuit. ''Sounds like a great job,'' Gore said. ''Too bad Colin Powell already has it.'' Gore then cited the assessment of the vice presidential job by FDR's vice president, John Nance Garner: that the office ''wasn't worth a pitcher of warm spit.''
Previously, at a Gridiron banquet, Gore had put this other side of himself on display when he talked about his regular weekly lunch with the president. He said that ''just the other day,'' when the two of them were discussing the state of the world and other vital matters, the president had looked over at Gore and, pointing to his plate, asked, ''You going to finish that?''
So it is becoming obvious that a ''new'' Al Gore is being brought forward by the vice president. His family and friends say it really is the old Al Gore - that he has always been a fun-loving fellow with an outrageous sense of humor. They say the only thing that's really happening now is that Gore is taking this lighter side of himself out of hiding.
Will it work? Will he be able to put aside the crowd perception that was once expressed by an onlooker during Gore's unsuccessful bid for the presidency in this way: ''He'd make a great funeral-parlor director''?
Well, all I can say is that the breakfast audience - including some former guests like Charles Percy, Pat Schroeder, William Cohen, Robert Strauss, and McCarthy, plus a number of reporters who had attended the gatherings in years past - clearly approved of Gore's performance. They laughed again and again when he played the cutup. And then they appeared to be listening to his every word as he carefully disclosed what the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign message would be.
He said that the president (and he) will cite improvements in the economy, including 8 million more jobs than when Bill Clinton moved into the White House. But he added that this message would be tempered by ''guarded optimism,'' with much attention being given to the many Americans who have been laid off by corporate downsizing and to the anxiety of others who fear they could lose their jobs next.
He conceded this would be a tightrope to walk.