Quayle sounds like a candidate

BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

INDIANAPOLIS - Kids. They grow up so fast.

One day they're just like Dan Quayle was in August 1988, when he was just a towheaded little junior senator from Indiana, dancing around the deck of a New Orleans riverboat and pumping his fists in the air, bubbling with joy after getting the word that George Bush wanted him as his running mate.

One day, they're just precocious little tykes who have trouble spelling the names of common food staples. The next thing you know, they're all grown up.

If you look at and listen to the former vice president these days, as 1,300 Republican activists had a chance to do this weekend at the Midwest Republican Leadership Conference here, you see that this is not the same politician who, a few short years ago, was being portrayed on Saturday Night Live by an 8-year-old boy sitting in the lap of Dana Carvey.

This Dan Quayle seems all grown up.

Mr. Quayle was something of an unofficial host for this three-day conference of Republicans from 13 Midwest states, if only because it was held in his home state of Indiana. It is a place where he no longer lives; he and his wife, Marilyn, hang their hats these days in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he is running Campaign America, the political action committee Bob Dole founded years ago.

Mr. Quayle, as he made the rounds at a ''Hoosier Barbecue'' at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Friday night and, earlier in the day, when he made a rousing speech to the 1,300 Republican delegates here, does not seem to be the same politician who provided Jay Leno and David Letterman with half their monologue material in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Back then, whenever he spoke with reporters, he answered questions with sort of a wary look in his eye, as if he were trying to anticipate just how the media hounds were going to trick him into saying something incredibly stupid.

Now he seems relaxed, self-confident; he jokes easily and even pokes fun at himself.

Friday he told Republicans a story about his campaign back in the 1970s to win election to the House. He campaigned on an education program with the acronym SELF.

''That's S-E-L-F,'' he said. ''Trust me on the spelling, folks.''

Maybe this new Dan Quayle, the one with a little more gray on the temples, has reason to be loosey-goosey.

Most of the Republican faithful here - who run the party organizations in their home states and who collectively represent states with 134 electoral votes - would list Mr. Quayle as the early front-runner for the 2000 presidential nomination, whether they support him or not.

And it is not like they have a short list to choose from. Many of the other potential contenders to be the next GOP presidential candidate were also in Indianapolis this weekend for what was being billed as the first ''cattle call'' of presidential candidates. The list included two who failed in 1996 - Steve Forbes, the magazine publisher, and Lamar Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee. There were new faces as well, including Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and George W. Bush, the Texas governor who many here think could mount the most serious challenge to Mr. Quayle.

But, for the most part, this weekend was Mr. Quayle's show. Hundreds of delegates wore ''Quayle 2000'' buttons to his speech Friday afternoon as the former vice president butted heads with House Speaker Newt Gingrich over the recent budget deal and blasted the Clinton administration for weakening the national defense.

In other words, he acted and sounded like a man who just might have more on his mind than how to spell potato.

Howard Wilkinson covers politics for The Enquirer. His column appears Sundays.

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