It's the end of a long day of campaigning across the flat lands, signing autographs, signing books, talking about the plight of the farmer and the need to strengthen the American family.

Now Dan Quayle is ready to talk about his predicament. Which tumbles into a discussion about the Bushes. Which gets to be complicated.

"I think Republicans have a real guilt complex when it comes to the Bush family," he says. "They feel that perhaps they should have worked harder for his father and that there's some sense of feeling that they let his father down. So this is payback time."

George W. Bush, beneficiary of the Big Payback?

This is the Quayle theory on why the party elite and the party regulars have wrapped their arms around Bush the Younger. Like cellophane all over a delicious slice of cake. Oh, they like Quayle, all right, but they don't think he's electable. He's got an image problem, plain and simple. Bumbler, lightweight, the Maestro of the Malaprop, whatever. It's unfair, they say. It's wrong, they say. But that's the way it is.

And so it's hard for Quayle to raise money, and it's hard for him to convince voters they should invest their hopes in him. And it's doubly hard to watch the relatively untested son of the president he served so loyally being cooed at and crowned before his eyes.

"Of course it's frustrating, but it's reality," he says. "So, there's not too much I can do about it."

Quayle is sitting at a long table in a banquet room at the Greenbriar Restaurant, whose owner is touting the New York strip steak special for $10.95. The 35 Iowans who came for coffee to hear his pitch, and his plea--Board our buses for Ames on Saturday and give me a vote at the GOP straw poll!--have left. He didn't share with them anything about his relationship with the Bushes or what it must do to his psyche to be a former vice president struggling amid the Gary Bauers of the field. That is not stump-speech material, and anyway, no one asked. Which is not to say the subject isn't on his mind.

"Once Republicans sober up and realize that we've got to actually vote for a nominee, I think it's going to change," he says of his predicament. "I think there is an initial rush to embrace the name George Bush. It's a very popular name. His dad is a dear friend, one of the most honorable, decent people that I've ever known. I didn't ever think I'd be running against his son, I have to confess."

When Quayle launched his presidential exploratory committee in early February, he had a chat with former president Bush about his desire to be the next president and whether W had designs on the same job.

"He says, 'Really, I am not exactly sure Junior is going to run or not,' " Quayle recalls. "They had not had that final, final statement. I think the president always thought that he would run. I'm sure he wanted him to run. So we talked about it.

"I said, 'Look, I know what you've got to do. If I was in the same position with my son running, I'd do the same thing. You gotta do what you gotta do.' So he's going to support his son, actively support him, and that's fine."

Quayle is asked whether Bush would be supporting him now if his own son were not in the race.

"Well, I don't know whether he would endorse or not," Quayle says, quickly adding that he believes he would have benefited from his Bush associations.

"I spent a lot of time cultivating a lot of George Bush's friends because I had no inkling, no thought ever crossed my mind, that I'd be running against his son. So from that perspective, I'm sure I would have a lot of the Bush loyalists and the Bush support because I was extremely loyal to George Bush, some people think to a fault."

Instead, he keeps getting slapped in the face. Awkward situations. Like last month's fund-raiser for the Texas governor in Quayle's home state of Indiana. Guess who was listed as chief hosts of the event? Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, whose wife is Quayle's cousin; and Al Hubbard, the former Indiana GOP chairman and onetime Quayle deputy chief of staff.

John Hoover, a prominent Indianapolis lawyer and longtime Quayle supporter, was also a host. He did advance work for Quayle when he was veep.

"I think Dan Quayle is a fine person," Hoover begins. "I think he is intelligent and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him personally and professionally, but I just feel at this point in time George Bush has a better opportunity to be the next president of the United States."

The irony is that once you move beyond the late-night jokesters and the Web site mockers and the partisans who hold him up for ridicule, you find that there is a warm feeling for Dan Quayle. Certainly among those who know him or have spent any time with him. If not love, then sympathy. If not sympathy, then pity.

You will not find snickering or scorn among the Republican establishment that has spurned him for George the Younger, or among the former Quayle aides and supporters who have transferred their dreams to W, or even among his rivals for the nomination.

"He's a guy who's run a very disciplined campaign and, through no fault of his own, has just not caught on," says John Weaver, political director for Arizona Sen. John McCain's campaign. "And it's not for lack of a message--if it were being delivered by somebody else."

There is a sad tone in many of these comments, as though Quayle was a gifted athlete whose career had been destroyed after a crushing hit on the field.

At age 29, he defeated a 16-year incumbent to win election to the House in 1976. Four years later, he defeated a popular incumbent senator. Eight years later, George Bush shocked the experts by selecting him as his running mate, just as Quayle was beginning to emerge as a respected junior senator. Some think that act alone ruined Quayle's career.

"Think about it: If George Bush hadn't picked him, he would have probably stood successfully for reelection and maybe have gone back to Indiana and been one of those Republican governors everyone is talking about," says Paul Light, an expert on the vice presidency at the Brookings Institution.

"He had the best job in politics too early in his career. He is the Gary Coleman of this presidential campaign," Light added, referring to the child acting star who never matched his early success. "He was just too junior and was never able to make a credible case for himself as vice president. You feel badly for the guy, you really do."

"I've heard that argument before, and I don't reject it totally out of hand," Quayle says. "The only thing I'm saying is I do not regret accepting George Bush's offer to be vice president. What I learned as vice president, if I'm elected president, will prove to be invaluable to me."

As for running for governor of Indiana, as some suggested he do after leaving the White House, Quayle says he rejected it after talking with former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, the most prominent former Bushie backing his presidential campaign, and with Richard Nixon, who counseled against it.

"I would have been using it just as a steppingstone to run for president, and it wouldn't have been fair to the people of Indiana," Quayle says, "wouldn't have been fair to others in my party who really wanted to run and serve."

But it seems clear that he's been tossing these career-choice questions around in his head as his presidential campaign sputters.

"I know what you're saying, and there's merit to it because I did have this really quite accomplished record as a member of the House and a member of the Senate."

And then zap--almost immediately there was controversy over his National Guard service during Vietnam, and it never seemed to get better. One episode after another, some trivial, some downright laughable.

"John Kennedy said life is unfair, and Dan Quayle's got to feel that way right now," says William Kristol, his former chief of staff. "I guess the irony of that is Quayle made mistakes in 1988, and I'd certainly be the first to admit that we didn't help him. But the Bush people never helped him as much as they could have, certainly not in the '88 campaign and certainly not in the four years in the White House. So it must be a little bit galling to have the whole Bush establishment move over to George W. with such force and such effect. And he's left high and dry."

Quayle believes he never got the honeymoon he believes George W. is now receiving from the national press corps. The coverage that accompanied his vice presidential nomination "was absolutely outrageous and unfair, and I'm still digging out of that hole. But I'll make it. It's just a little steeper climb than I anticipated."

His derision is not directed at Bush so much as at the process, though Quayle is hardly close to George W. You sense that brother Jeb, the Florida governor, is the Bush sibling he feels more compatible with.

"Actually, Jeb was the one who would come in and talk education, [school] choice, and was very interested in the contras. George would come in, he was more interested in the politics, the political side . . ."

His voice trails off.

"But no, I had a very good relationship with him. He's a good man. And someday, maybe he will be president. Not this time around."

Quayle laughs, pleased that he has been able to make humor out of an uncomfortable subject. He is not from the Mortal Kombat school of politics. He is certainly not Marilyn Quayle, who happens to be his wife but who doesn't care for George W., a "guy that never accomplished anything," she explains. "Everything he got, Daddy took care of."

That's what she told her local paper, the Arizona Republic. She called W "the party frat-boy type." No "there" there. "The caricature they made of Dan in '88 is George W. It's him. It wasn't true about Dan. But it is him."

Spicy stuff. What Dan Quayle has to say about Bush is not spicy at all. It's packaged in allusions to being ready on Day One. To not needing briefing books and a slew of advisers to tackle tough foreign policy and national security issues. He never mentions Bush by name, but everyone understands.

At some level, it must hurt that he hasn't caught on, that so many of the people who used to be with him no longer believe. He is asked for his inner feelings about this, but he won't go there.

"I understand polls. I understand politics, and there are a lot of people who just go with the polls. George Bush is leading in the polls, so a lot of people are going to jump on that bandwagon and it's got a full head of steam.

"I just think before this thing is over, the people are going to give me a real good look. And when they do, I think a lot of the pundits and experts and some of my past friends who didn't think I could make it will be very surprised."

When he arrives at the Greenbriar Restaurant, Quayle promptly begins to work the room. Each person gets a handshake and a few personal moments. An autograph if the visitor wants one.

Phil Cavanaugh is there with his family. He's leaning toward supporting Steve Forbes. "We like Mr. Quayle. We have his book and wanted to get it autographed. We're just concerned it would be a very uphill battle for him."

He is introduced to a woman who is originally from North Carolina and likes Elizabeth Dole. "For a running mate, she'd be good," Quayle quips.

Quayle has something for everybody. He touts his experience in Washington, even as he rails against the Washington political culture and advocates term limits for his former colleagues. He now lives in Arizona, but he pitches his "Midwestern values" here. He's for tax cuts and against the intrusions of the IRS.

The sleeves of his light blue shirt are rolled up; he's got one hand in his pocket, the other pointing and gesturing. He looks carefree, sounds optimistic. Nowhere to go but up.

After the crowd files out, he observes that it's not over. It's just beginning.

"It's very fortuitous the way this campaign is going to be run because you start in Iowa, small states, retail politics. They rely less on image and more on meeting and greeting you, the word-of-mouth.

"I still think message is going to win out over money. So we feel very comfortable, confident with where we are. We know we've got a long way to go. But there's a long way before those caucuses take place."

CAPTION: In 1988, Dan Quayle was just the ticket for candidate George Bush. Now, not surprisingly, Bush's loyalties lie with his son.

CAPTION: Iowans "rely less on image," says Dan Quayle, shown at a book signing in West Des Moines.