HOUSTON -- Four years ago, Dan Quayle introduced himself to the nation's television screens by bounding onto the New Orleans dock where Republican presidential nominee George Bush had just proclaimed him to be his running mate.
Mr. Quayle, beside himself with undisguised glee, grabbed and hugged Mr. Bush and immediately launched into the role he has played ever since: the all-out cheerleader for, and defender of, the man who took what has turned out to be a very big gamble on him.
As Vice President Quayle awaits his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention here tonight, his exuberance has been somewhat overshadowed by the widespread criticism and even ridicule that his performance has generated. Yet he perseveres with a doggedness and a loyalty to his political benefactor that wins him admiration among the faithful, particularly in the party's most conservative ranks.
In advance of his acceptance speech tonight, Mr. Quayle has been making the rounds of state delegations to assure them that he intends to "reintroduce" himself to the American people to counter his negative image.
On NBC's "Today" show, he charged that the news media had caricatured him in 1988 and thereafter "had a lot invested in making sure the caricature didn't change."
"I'm determined to change that," he said. "I hope by the end of the campaign, people will see who I really am and where I come from, and the values that I have."
To that end, he has been telling audiences here about his small-town roots in Huntington, Ind., and his attendance in public schools to counter the impression that he was a sheltered rich kid as the grandson of wealthy newspaper publisher Eugene C. Pulliam. A video is to be shown at the convention tonight $H depicting Mr. Quayle's boyhood, complete with family movies.
Mr. Quayle's reward for his unwavering service to Mr. Bush and the party has been the president's unflagging public support and an unchallenged place on the GOP ticket for a second time, despite deep misgivings among many Republicans that his dismal ratings in the polls could cost Mr. Bush re-election in a very close race.
In a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, voters by 46 percent to 40 percent said Mr. Bush should have dumped Mr. Quayle, including 32 percent of Republicans surveyed; a majority of Republicans said they would approve if Mr. Bush did drop him from the ticket. An NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll last week showed that 52 percent of voters view Mr. Quayle negatively, an all-time high.
In the 1988 campaign, when allegations flew that Mr. Quayle had ducked service in Vietnam by joining the Indiana National Guard with the help of family friends, and when various campaign missteps made him the subject of national laughter, he was a political burden that Mr. Bush was able to bear because of the opposition. The choice between Mr. Bush and Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis was an easy one for most voters, and they never had to look past the presidential line at the running mates to make their decision. Many Republicans fear that this year could be different. With Mr. Bush trailing Democratic nominee Bill Clinton by more than 20 percentage points in some polls, they are concerned that if voters look to the running mates, Mr. Quayle could be the margin of Mr. Bush's defeat.
That possibility certainly has not been lost on Mr. Clinton, who has been bragging on his choice of running mate, Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, ever since he made it. On their joint bus trips across small-town America, Mr. Clinton often leads off his speeches by comparing his selection with Mr. Bush's choice of Mr. Quayle four years ago. The remark always draws wild cheers.
A recent CNN-Time poll found 63 percent of those surveyed said they thought Mr. Gore was qualified to be president, while only 21 percent thought Mr. Quayle was. For all that, Mr. Quayle has emerged in Mr. Bush's most dire hour of political need as an aggressive and, at least among conservatives, effective defender.
While in manner and style he is still a far cry from the most celebrated vice-presidential hatchet men on the stump -- Richard M. Nixon in 1952 and 1956 and Spiro T. Agnew in 1968 and 1972 -- Mr. Quayle has turned up the heat on the Democrats with some of the same time-honored oratorical weapons. He calls the Democratic ticket mates just another pair of "tax-and-spend liberals" masquerading as Southern moderates. And he does battle with what he calls the country's "cultural elite" in the fields of entertainment, communications and academia just as Mr. Agnew did, though with less venom so far.
In the long months when Mr. Bush insisted on staying above the campaign wars, his vice president carried the brunt of the Republican political effort, first in the New Hampshire and other early primary states where television commentator Patrick J. Buchanan challenged for the party's most conservative elements, then against the threatening insurgency of Texas billionaire Ross Perot. In the process, he raised millions of dollars for the Bush campaign and for state Republican parties and candidates.
While many outside the party continued to treat Mr. Quayle as a national joke -- particularly after his recent, hapless misspelling of "potato" -- many inside cheered him for plodding on, raising issues like "family values" in his criticism of the "Murphy Brown" television character's single motherhood.
As vice president, Mr. Quayle gets at least passing grades from those who have watched him up close on the traditional duties of the No. 2 man -- shoring up constituencies at home and glad-handing foreign leaders on his many trips abroad. For the most part, he has handled these tasks adequately, but the occasional gaffe always triggers a regurgitating of old misstatements in the news media, putting him back at square one.
Inside the Bush administration as well as on the stump, Mr. Quayle has been the champion of the party's most conservative forces. His chairmanship of the president's Council on Competitiveness has been hailed by conservatives as an innovative way to combat excessive regulation of business but castigated by Democrats as a means to end-run regulations designed to protect working men and women and the environment.
As the general election campaign gets under way, Mr. Quayle is expected to continue his role in the first essential political task: rebuilding the party's base constituencies, weakened by the Buchanan and Perot challenges. He must also cope with further right-wing disenchantment with Mr. Bush, long considered a closet moderate by ultraconservatives, especially after he abandoned his "no new taxes" pledge from the 1988 convention.
In a departure from the 1988 campaign, Mr. Quayle has been traveling without the Bush-imposed "handlers" who tried to save him from himself four years ago with less than success. He and his staff were regularly consulted on the campaign message by the pre-convention campaign manager, Robert Teeter. Whether that will continue now that James A. Baker III, the departed secretary of state and manager of the '88 campaign, is taking charge remains to be seen. Mr. Baker has never been an outspoken admirer of Mr. Quayle. In any event, it is not considered likely that Mr. Bush will follow Mr. Clinton's example and travel often and extensively with his running mate. Rather, Mr. Quayle is expected to get the usual running mate's assignment of campaigning in secondary markets -- the smaller and more remote states and towns -- leaving the task of winning the major markets -- the big electoral-vote states -- to Mr. Bush.
Mr. Quayle's political fortune obviously is closely tied to the fate of Mr. Bush. As vice president for a second term, he would be well positioned from a historical standpoint to be the party's 1996 presidential nominee. In seven of the last eight elections at least one of the major party nominees was first a vice president. Every vice president who has sought his party's presidential nomination has received it since Mr. Nixon in 1960. (Mr. Agnew was a front-runner for the nomination heading toward 1976 until he was forced to resign in disgrace.)
But history is not always the determining factor, and Mr. Quayle's low voter approval and his penchant for putting his foot in his mouth assure that he will have a number of challengers for the '96 nomination if he reaches for it. Few doubt that Mr. Quayle aspires to do so, but the defeat of the ticket, especially in a close race where fingers of blame would be pointed at him, could harpoon that dream.
So George Bush's indefatigable cheerleader has nearly as much at stake in November as the man he seems never to tire of cheering for.