WASHINGTON -- As the Ross Perot phenomenon grows more threatening each day to President Bush's re-election, securing the Republican right-wing base becomes more essential than ever. That helps to explain Vice President Dan Quayle's role as the designated hitter on the "values" issue, first carried out in his celebrated "Murphy Brown" speech and now in his attack on "the cultural elite" in the nation's "newsrooms, sitcom studios and faculty lounges."
It is a role, according to campaign associates, that he argued for and finally won out over some resistance in the White House West Wing and at the Bush-Quayle re-election committee. As long as the 1992 race shaped up as a two-way affair, outreach was the order of the day. But with the prospect of a three-way race, Quayle was able to argue successfully that the one thing the GOP ticket could not afford to lose to Perot was its conservative base.
In fulfilling this role, Quayle appears to be a far cry from the obedient greenhorn who was assigned "handlers" in the 1988 campaign to make sure he didn't fall into political manholes. (One of those handlers, Joe Canzeri, incidentally has just signed on with Perot as a master advance man and arranger of extravaganzas.)
The vice president needs no handlers now because he is preaching the undiluted conservative litany in which he has always believed, and he is much more disciplined as a speaker than he was in 1988, when the handlers were assigned by the Bush campaign to keep him on a tight leash.
Addressing a National Right-to-Life Convention in Arlington, Va., in the third of his series of "values" speeches, Quayle stuck strictly to his text, reading it flawlessly from twin reading devices set up on each side of him.
He reported that while members of "the cultural elite" were making snide remarks about his "Murphy Brown" remarks, his office was getting "hundreds of calls that said over and over again, 'Thank goodness someone is finally speaking out.'"
The right-to-lifers jumped to their feet to cheer and applaud him.
Quayle told the audience that "we shall carry the day, in defense of mothers and children, because the American people are far ahead of the country's self-appointed cultural elites." The lyrics were a bit different but the tune was basically the same that Republicans have been crooning at least since the days of Richard Nixon, in his appeal to "the silent majority," and Spiro Agnew, in his assault on "radical liberals" who thought themselves better than "the average American."
Like Nixon and Agnew -- and Ronald Reagan and George Bush since then -- Quayle is obviously laboring to divide the country along what he argues are cultural lines by suggesting that "family values" are the exclusive property of the Republican Party and its candidates. It is a tactic that has worked well in the past, but it may be less effective against Perot, whose talent for identifying with "the average American" -- although he is far from average -- has been so impressive to date.
If the Bush campaign had its act together and had a presidential candidate who was articulating where he wants to lead the country in a second term, there might not be the opening for Quayle to emerge so conspicuously as the point man on selling the "values" pitch. But with Bush himself floundering, the vice PTC president has an opportunity to carry the Republican ball, and with an eye on 1996 he is not squandering it.
In seizing the chance, Quayle has little to lose. After nearly 3 1/2 in the vice presidency, his ratings in some polls are lower than ever. In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, his favorable rating dropped from 39 percent in February to 26 percent, and his unfavorable climbed from 48 percent to 54 percent.
Within the GOP conservative base, however, Quayle has always enjoyed considerably greater credibility, particularly among those in the right wing who have never trusted Bush as a true believer. His current campaign role will only cement that credibility regardless of Bush's fate. While he is no match yet for either Nixon or Agnew as a vice-presidential hit man on the stump, Quayle in filling a vacuum is becoming a more influential voice in a re-election campaign that has sorely lacked one.