Dan dares to go back into orbit

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HE HAS been described as 'about as smart as your average houseplant'. Notoriously, he has trouble spelling 'potato.' But no such blemishes spoil his just-published memoir, Standing Firm. Preened, eager, and with even a touch of gravitas, Dan Quayle is back in the spotlight, looking as if he cannot wait for the 1996 Republican presidential stakes to start in earnest.

This week, with wall-to-wall appearances on television, the most derided American politician of his era began a two-month promotion tour taking him to 36 US cities. Given the scantiness of the Quayle insights - not to mention the Quayle prose, as vapid and self-serving as most specimens of the genre - the exposure may seem excessive. But Standing Firm is less a literary venture than the opening move in a run for the White House.

Despite the publisher's best efforts, and an initial print-run of 350,000 copies, the revelations are few. Mr Quayle says he briefly considered a presidential run in 1988. Less surprising, he came close to dropping out as vice-presidential nominee that year because of media mockery and the uproar over his National Guard service during the Vietnam war. He lambasts the 1992 Republican campaign as the 'worst incumbent campaign ever' - but that judgment is already history.

What matters are the pointers to his intentions. Scattered through the 400 pages of Standing Firm are potshots at almost every potential Republican rival two years hence, from his old foe Jim Baker to Bob Dole, Phil Gramm and Jack Kemp. To allay possible anxieties about J Danforth Quayle in charge of the White House situation room, there are chapters with headings such as 'Saving Aquino' and 'Nailing Noriega' extolling the then vice- presidential contributions.

'I've seen the job close-up, and I know I can do it,' he tells interviewer after interviewer. 'It's not a question of whether I want to be president but whether I want to run for president.' A final decision, he informed ABC's PrimeTime Live last week, would be taken this autumn.

Mr Quayle's caution is more than understandable. After his surprise selection by George Bush Mr Quayle took media flak that fixed him for ever in the national consciousness as rich, and spoilt, tanned and foolish.

But Mr Quayle should not be written off. In his book, Mr Quayle exults in casting himself as the underdog: 'All my life I've loved beating the odds.' In fact, until November 1992, Mr Quayle had never lost an election. Dan Quayle, not Bill Clinton or Al Gore, was the first politican of the baby-boomer generation to achieve national office.

And hence, he speculates, much of the prejudice is fanned by a largely liberal media furious that this standard bearer should be a conservative. Mr Quayle supports his thesis: the 'potato(e)' gaffe, for example, fuelled talkshow jokes for a month. But when earnest Al Gore misquoted the national motto of E pluribus unum no-one paid the slighest attention.

Today's Dan Quayle is wreathed in serenity: whatever might happen in 1996 could hardly be worse than 1988. And there are other factors working in his favour. Mr Quayle's name recognition is unquestioned, as is his fundraising ability. He has a natural constituency on the activist right of the party, whose influence in the primary season can be disproportionate.

And as the current heart-searching over broken homes testifies, those Quayle views on 'family values' which once aroused such mirth are now the coinage of the realm. Polls suggest Mr Quayle is still well back in the pack of potential 1996 Republican candidates. But there is no natural front-runner. Two months of Standing Firm might change a great deal.

(Photograph omitted)