Quayle Courts Conservatives
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 23, 1999; Page A14
Former vice president Dan Quayle, appearing before a crowd of hundreds of party activists yesterday, proclaimed himself the rightful heir to the conservative mantle in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
In a forceful speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference annual meeting, Quayle began the daunting task of overcoming a skeptical and increasingly pragmatic conservative base determined to back a winner after heartbreaking defeats in 1992 and 1996.
None of the other names being mentioned as possible GOP presidential candidates can match Quayle's political re»sume» and none is as familiar to the conservatives who will drive the nominating process that begins in Iowa in a little more than a year. But Quayle's name recognition could be as much of a curse as a blessing as he struggles to overcome his not-quite-ready-for-prime-time reputation, several party officials and activists said this week.
"People think Dan Quayle is a very principled conservative," said conservative lobbyist Karen Kerrigan after his speech. "The problem is not the message, but the messenger. To be president, you have to do more than say the right things. You have to connect, and that's a problem Dan Quayle has had for a long time."
Bill Kristol, Quayle's former chief of staff, said Quayle "has this high threshold to get over. If he gets over it, he could be very strong. But it's tough to get over it. The monkey is on his back from all the years of ridicule and Jay Leno jokes."
Quayle's speech before the 1,000-plus crowd at CPAC sought to distinguish him from an expanding list of potential GOP candidates in a year with no consensus front-runner. Unlike former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander and publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, who in the past have been viewed with suspicion by social conservatives, Quayle has long espoused their views.
"Yes, values do matter," he said to cheers.
Several people said his speech hit all the right notes, particularly on values and foreign policy. Quayle derided President Clinton and Vice President Gore as unethical, chided them for abdicating U.S. sovereignty to the United Nations, declared the need for moral leadership and promised to strengthen the military. But beyond proposing a 30 percent across-the-board income tax cut, the speech was short on specifics.
"Don't be fooled by this crowd," he said of Clinton and Gore. "They will take away our freedom. They're not New Democrats. They're New Age socialists!"
Quayle was particularly strident about Gore. "Bill Clinton obstructs justice and Al Gore calls him a moral leader. ... Bill Clinton and Al Gore deserve each other. America deserves better."
In contrast, Quayle said, he has "never seen more courage than that displayed on Capitol Hill by [Rep.] Henry Hyde [Ill.]" and fellow Republicans during the impeachment proceedings.
The crowd received him politely. But only the few dozen young men and women carrying signs – "Quayle for President" and "Run Dan Run" – that Quayle brought in stood to cheer during the obvious applause lines.
One aspect of Quayle's message – that the strength of the economy is overrated – has baffled some conservatives. "The economy is good in South Carolina," said Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler (R). "I really think Dan Quayle's strong suit will be family values issues and foreign policy issues." But Quayle said in an interview after his speech, "If you're one of the 10,000 steelworkers who lost his job last year, the economy's not so great."
Ever since a GOP candidate forum in Indianapolis in August 1997, Quayle has been suggesting strongly that he would seek his party's nomination in 2000. Thursday night on "Larry King Live" he said: "I want to be president." Quayle, who will establish an exploratory committee next week, said he will formally announce his intentions Feb. 3 in Indianapolis.
His experience, he said, would distinguish him from the crowd of candidates. "I've been fighting for these issues for 20 years," he said in yesterday's interview. "I have the experience. I've been there."
Quayle, 51, began his political career in the House in 1977 and four years later entered the Senate. In 1988, George Bush tapped Quayle to be his running mate. In the White House, he became a favorite of comedians with his high-profile gaffes, such as misspelling potato and misquoting the United Negro College Fund slogan by saying, "What a waste it is to lose one's mind."
In early 1995, after treatment for blood clots and assessing his fund-raising prospects, Quayle announced he would not seek the presidency in 1996. The Indiana native then moved to Phoenix to run a political action committee, Campaign America, which raised $6 million in the last election cycle, according to aides.
Several Republican leaders said this week that conservative activists feel indebted to Quayle, who as vice president "was the lone voice in the wilderness" on social issues, as GOP consultant Ralph Reed put it. "The thing that has hampered Vice President Quayle from getting liftoff is purely based on the narrow issue of viability."
Reed said conservatives believe "they deserve their own standard-bearer." "John Ashcroft did the best job of anyone of locking down that market share," Reed said of the Missouri senator. But now that Ashcroft has announced he will not run, "there is a sense of growing frustration" among conservatives as they search for a new favorite.
Andrea Sheldon, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, a lobbying organization that represents 40,000 churches, said Quayle was just one of a number of Republicans who could well represent the party in 2000. But she said Forbes, who has worked tirelessly to court social conservatives since his failed presidential bid in 1996, was her early favorite.
"If [Quayle] wins, conservatives would fall behind him," she said. "But [Forbes], I think, appeals to a broader spectrum of people."
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company