WHEN VICE President Dan Quayle came here to DePauw University, his alma mater, last fall for a speech, he was greeted ++ enthusiastically by an impressed student body. Most undergrads cheered as he defended the Persian Gulf troop deployment of his boss, President Bush.
But in late February, the college newspaper asked 100 randomly selected students: "If something happened to President Bush, are you confident that Vice President Quayle could lead the nation in the war with Iraq?" Some 53 percent said no, to 47 percent who said yes.
Compared to similar polls of general public opinion, that was a considerable improvement in terms of confidence in Quayle. But this after all was his old school and he had, fairly recently, made a good impression on a significant segment of the 2,300-member student body.
In what seemed a mood more of regret and sympathy than ridicule, a dozen DePauw undergraduates gathered the other day at the school's new media center and discussed the plight of their school's most famous alumnus. And if any consensus could be discerned in the ensuing discussion, it appeared to be that, deserved or not, the vice president is stuck with the rap that he's a lightweight.
Tammy Buckovich, 21, of Spring Grove, Pa., said the country "branded him when he was on the ticket" in 1988 and that as a result "there's no expectation there" of a stellar performance.
"In the campaign," said Stan McCoy, 19, of Alexandria, Va., "somebody tattooed 'Loser' on his forehead and nobody has expected a damn thing from him since."
And Tim Groeling, 21, of Muncie, Ind., observed: "Perception has become reality to a certain degree here, because the media's whole job with respect to Dan Quayle now is reporting [gaffes]. That is the only thing on the Dan Quayle beat is waiting for him to make a gaffe and immediately rushing to the American public so that [Jay] Leno can get it on his monologue and [Johnny] Carson can get it on his. . . . No matter what Dan Quayle does anymore, he's branded. It's become ingrained in the American public by repetition."
As a result, Groeling contended, Quayle "should drop himself" from the Republican slate in 1992 "because he is a definite detriment to the ticket. . . . He has literally no chance to change the perception." But nobody around the table thought Bush would dump him.
The public doesn't seem to be concerned about having Quayle a heartbeat away from the presidency said Jamie Prime, 19, of Madison, Ind., a Quayle fraternity brother at Delta Kappa Epsilon, because now "he's out of sight, out of mind, so we don't have to worry about him." But he said voters should think more about Quayle as a potential president as the 1992 election draws nearer.
Jamie Chapman, 21, of Denver said she thought Bush had "kissed the presidency good bye" when he selected Quayle as his running mate in 1988, but it didn't matter. That was because, several others noted, voters were more concerned about Democrat Michael Dukakis becoming president than about Quayle becoming vice president.
Whether Quayle on the ticket will imperil Bush's re-election, they said, will again depend on whether the Democrats offer a presidential nominee seen as an acceptable alternative to Bush. Only if they do, they agree, will the identity of the vice-presidential nominees become a voting factor. In any event, several suggested, the Democrats will harp on Quayle as a political target, because he has not been able to shake his image as a lightweight.
Throughout this discussion, there seemed to be little imperative among the DePauw students to defend their school's best-known alumnus out of school loyalty. Groeling, while saying he felt sorry for Quayle's plight, deplored a sort of guilt by association he said he encountered.
Going to New York for a job interview, he said, when he would say he attended DePauw, the response would be, "Oh, Dan Quayle." Jamie Chapman added: 'Everybody thinks, "Why, that school must be terrible if Quayle could graduate from there."
Chris Stoll, 21, of Princeton, Ind., said there was "some latent support" for Quayle at the school, seen in the turnout for his speech. But Tammy Buckovich said that was because "we want so much for him to do well."
Still, it was clear from this discussion that these DePauw students do want Dan Quayle "to do well," if only because failing to do so can, however unfairly, reflect negatively on them and their school in the eyes of others.