FRESNO, Calif. -- George Bush may be dying politically in the campaign's final days, but Dan Quayle is just fading away.
The vice president is stoically filling a role that keeps him largely out of the picture in what could well be his last national campaign.
In sharp contrast to Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who shattered precedent by running in tandem much of the fall, Mr. Bush and Mr. Quayle haven't made a joint appearance since the day after the Republican convention in August.
Though campaign aides insist there's no plan to hide him, Mr. Quayle often goes for days at a time without making the news, and his schedule doesn't always seem calculated to have any real impact on the race.
This week, for example, in between Mr. Bush's appearances on CNN's "Larry King Live," Mr. Quayle was a guest on "After Thoughts" with the Rev. Braxton Berkley, an amateurish interview show on a public access cable channel in Los Angeles.
Mr. Berkley, after a rocky opening, confessed to viewers that he was awed by Mr. Quayle's presence on the program.
"I couldn't believe it was happening," he said.
If Mr. Quayle felt the same way, he never let it show.
Indeed, he has little trouble shaking off what is happening to him, like the obscenity-shouting demonstrators who forced him to cut short a walking tour of San Francisco's Chinatown this week. Compared with the hazing he got in the 1988 campaign, this year has been a virtual pleasure trip.
For while the spotlight is off, so, too, is the pressure. With Mr. Clinton far ahead in the polls, there is little Mr. Quayle can do to affect the outcome. The president, not he, is getting the heat for a stagnant U.S. economy. And when was the last time anyone complained about the decision to keep him on the GOP ticket?
"This is an entirely different campaign for me personally," Mr. Quayle tells reporters as he lounged in his private cabin aboard Air Force Two.
But what is striking is how Mr. Quayle has scarcely changed at all since his initial plunge onto the national scene in 1988. He retains his sunny personality, though there is an edge to it now that didn't show before, the inevitable result of being the butt of negative news stories and jokes on TV for four solid years.
"Everything we've heard about him is bad," remarks a Tacoma, Wash., logger, sympathetically, at a Quayle campaign event on the shore of Puget Sound.
Mr. Quayle himself, convinced that reporters go out of their way to victimize him, no longer tries to conceals his contempt for the press.
"Every time that I'm going to have a little fun or joke a little bit, they are going to spin it to my disadvantage," he complains.
He has a point. During his four years as vice president, Mr. Quayle has never made a blunder on the scale of those Mr. Bush committed during his years in the office -- everything from going along with the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran to toasting Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos for his "love of democracy." And yet coverage of Mr. Quayle has essentially degenerated into a gaffe-watch.
Even some of the famous Quayle "gaffes" have more to do with his indelible (though considerably exaggerated) image as a dunce, rather than anything he actually does or says. For example, a recent comment that his public school background puts him at a disadvantage in next Tuesday's vice presidential debate was clearly made in jest, according to several witnesses who were there when he said it. But after the initial wire service report treated the remark as a serious one, the controversy took off.
While Mr. Quayle is more relaxed this time out than in '88, th prospect of defeat is a particularly bitter one. Over the past four years he has waged a determined campaign to repair his reputation, which produced some notable successes, including a high-profile, largely positive series of articles about him in The Washington Post.
Still, his political fate hinges almost certainly on Mr. Bush's re-election. If he wins, it would very likely mean a run by Mr. Quayle for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination. A Bush defeat could well make Mr. Quayle the only elected vice president in the last 40 years who did not go on to seek the presidency, with the exception of Spiro T. Agnew, who resigned the vice-presidency in disgrace.
"I don't think he has any future if Bush loses," said Edward J. Rollins, a former Reagan campaign manager and, most recently, an adviser to Ross Perot's campaign.
Unlike Walter F. Mondale, who claimed the Democratic nomination four years after he and Jimmy Carter were voted out of office, Mr. Quayle lacks a sufficient political base of his own to mount a credible nomination campaign.
Some Quayle advisers disagree, saying it is impossible to predict the politics of 1996. But others say the vice president would have to rehabilitate himself first. He is likely to return to his home state of Indiana, possibly to run for governor in 1996, says a top aide. Mr. Quayle himself has spoken privately about returning to the communications industry, where he worked before entering politics.
The very real possibility of losing next month's election could mean that Tuesday night's nationally televised debate will be a last hurrah.
For the only time in the general election campaign, he will get the country's undivided attention, along with Democrat Al Gore and Ross Perot's running mate, James B. Stockdale.
Friends say he is eager for the encounter, potentially his final chance to erase public memories of the drubbing he took at the hands of Lloyd Bentsen in the '88 vice-presidential debate.
Out on the campaign trail, meantime, Mr. Quayle sometimes comes across a lonely figure, as other Republicans keep their distance from the unpopular national ticket.
During a three-day swing this week on the West Coast, where Mr. Bush is trailing by as much as 20 percentage points, Mr. Quayle shared the public stage just once with another GOP candidate -- and that was at the candidate's fund-raising dinner, where the vice president was guest of honor. Campaigning in Washington state, he never even mentioned Rod Chandler, touted as one of the Republican Party's best chances to pick up a Democratic Senate seat this year.
At a Quayle rally Wednesday in a dusty field outside Fresno, Calif., the local Republican candidate for Congress, Tal L. Cloud, was among those in the audience of 1,000 supporters. He said it was "not imperative" for him to be up on stage, since his own polls show him running six to eight percentage points ahead of Mr. Bush in the district.
Mr. Quayle got halfway through his speech when an ominous new chant arose from the crowd. Instead of the usual chorus of "Four More Years," they were shouting, over and over again, "Don't give up! Don't give up! Don't give up!"