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NEWS ANALYSIS : GOP Not Ready to Paint 'Quayle for President' Signs : Politics: Former vice president is hinting at his White House plans. But party chiefs say '96 is too early.


LYNCHBURG, Va. — "Wherever I go, people want me to think about 1996, so I will," Dan Quayle tells about 200 Republican loyalists gathered here for a fund-raising luncheon. Pausing to let the suspense build, he adds: "Let me be very clear. Bill Clinton will be a one-term President." As if on cue, his audience bursts into cheers.

Quayle's teasing reference to his plans for the 1996 campaign is more than just a setup for an applause line. As he himself acknowledges, the former vice president is giving "very serious consideration" to making a run for the White House. Between now and November's congressional elections, he will visit about 30 states in what he calls "a conversation with the American people."

And most who hear him on the stump come away convinced that Quayle has some things going for him--notably his early advocacy of "family values," an issue that has been taking on increasing resonance in both parties. The former vice president is also an early favorite of conservative Christians, a major activist bloc in the Republican Party.

Yet for all his potential strengths, many Republican leaders and party operatives, including some of Quayle's own erstwhile aides, say they think that he would be better off putting his presidential ambitions on hold for 1996. They believe that, even under the most favorable circumstances, he needs more time to rid himself of baggage, particularly the impression of immaturity, that dogged his vice presidency.

"The press has tagged him with an image as a lightweight," said Michael Harrington, a former Lynchburg GOP official who heard Quayle speak here on behalf of Republican Oliver L. North, who is seeking to unseat Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.). "And I don't think he has yet overcome that perception."

Quayle's admirers point out that he has confounded his detractors in the past. His controversial "Murphy Brown" speech brought forth a chorus of catcalls in 1992. Yet the idea of "social sanctions" against women who bear children out of wedlock now has become conventional wisdom, embraced by voices as diverse as Atlantic Monthly magazine and Donna Shalala, secretary of health and human services in the Clinton Administration.

Even President Clinton, who once complained that he was "fed up" with politicians "lecturing" about family values, recently emphasized that theme himself, as Quayle has pointedly noted. "Welcome aboard, Mr. President," he jibed at last month's political strategy conference of the Christian Coalition.

On that occasion and in other recent appearances, Quayle has been spelling out a family values agenda that combines an assortment of carrots and sticks. To encourage marriage, he would eliminate the so-called marriage tax penalty. He would also reward couples who have children by boosting the tax deduction for their offspring and indexing that deduction to the rate of inflation.

On the other side of the ledger, he would eliminate all additional stipends to welfare mothers for children born out of wedlock, though he would leave the mothers themselves on the welfare rolls. "I know it sounds harsh," he told a reporter after his talk here. "But I tell you what's harsher: children who live in poverty generation after generation."

Should Quayle seek the GOP nomination, he would have the "inside track" on gaining the backing of conservative Christians, according to Ralph Reed, director of the Christian Coalition, the most potent of the groups on the religious right.

"Our people appreciate his willingness to stand tall for them when these ideas were not popular," Reed said.

But another influential Christian conservative, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, said he does not believe that Quayle nor any other candidate for the GOP nomination is in a position to monopolize support among Christian conservatives as Ronald Reagan did in 1980.

"I don't see a Ronald Reagan out there now," said Falwell, who sat at the head table at the Lynchburg fund-raising lunch for North. He said half a dozen other Republican presidential possibilities also could appeal to religious conservatives.

And despite the "Murphy Brown" episode, some conservative Christians question the strength of Quayle's commitment to their cause. "I think that he wants to be all things to all people," said Martin Mawyer, head of the Christian Action Network, a lobbying group that claims 80,000 supporters around the country.

Mawyer points to Quayle's complaint in his best-selling book, "Standing Firm," that "strident behavior" at the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston hurt the GOP ticket. Mawyer said Quayle was trying to "distance himself" from religious conservatives with his book, while trying to "endear himself" to them in his travels around the country.

Whatever the merits of this criticism, the stress on family values is only one aspect of the 47-year-old Quayle's political profile, shaped by a career that already has been shaken by more turbulence than most politicians endure in a lifetime.

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