In the minds of many Americans, Republican presidential hopeful Dan Quayle's defining political moment occurred during a 1992 speech in which he blasted TV character Murphy Brown for opting to have a baby without getting married. The speech became a classic--a touchstone in this decade's robust discussion of the relationship between social values and popular culture.
That speech still resonates loudly with Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican who represents much of Howard County in Congress. Last week, Bartlett signed on to be the Maryland chairman of Quayle's run for the White House, despite the candidate's recent poor outing in the Iowa straw poll and the massive early lead built by Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
In Bartlett's mind, Quayle is--and has been--the leader in preaching conservative-style social values, a posture close to his heart.
"He was doing it before it was cool," he said. "I really signed on to Dan Quayle when he gave that speech so many years ago."
As Maryland chairman, Bartlett faces considerable obstacles. The state typically votes for Democratic candidates. President Clinton handily carried it in both his campaigns. Moreover, the state's Republicans are thought to be conservative fiscally but more moderate on social issues such as abortion, homosexuality, gun control and affirmative action.
Though Bartlett was elected to office in 1992, he remembers another fellow conservative who, against the odds, captured the state years earlier. "Reagan did it. That shows it can be done," he said.
The job description for a state campaign chairman is loose at best. Bartlett said his prime focus will be to design a strategy that establishes Quayle as the "values candidate."
"People want to hear the issues he talks about. My job is to ensure that when they think values they think of Dan Quayle," Bartlett said.
Beyond the values debate, three issues in particular make Quayle a strong candidate, said Bartlett: defense, the plight of the family farmer and tax cuts. Quayle has promised more military spending, aid to the drought- and import-hurt small farmers and an across-the-board 30 percent tax cut that would reduce the size of the federal government--all music to Bartlett's ears.
Quayle said Bartlett is the man to woo the voters of Howard, Frederick, Carroll, Allegany, Garrett and Washington counties--his constituents--to the campaign.
"With Roscoe on board, I have great confidence in the things we can accomplish in Maryland," Quayle said in a prepared statement. "I look forward to working with him as we protect the family farm, lower taxes, and strengthen our communities."
Despite the platform, strong name recognition and experience in Congress and as vice president, Quayle lags far behind Bush in polls, campaign cash and momentum.
In the Iowa straw poll last month, Quayle finished a disappointing eighth, behind such long shots as former education secretary Lamar Alexander, former ambassador Alan Keyes and conservative pundit Patrick J. Buchanan.
Alexander quit the race days later. Several members of Quayle's staff defected. The wounded candidate decided to move his entire paid staff to two key states, Iowa and New Hampshire, in the hopes that a strong showing in one of those primaries will derail the Bush bandwagon.
Bartlett said he believes that Bush has been such an effective candidate only because he refrains from discussion of touchy issues, including Quayle's favorite, values.
Bush "never had to articulate those issues as governor," he said. "If nobody knows where he stands, eventually they'll take a look at other candidates."
And Bartlett, who has won four elections himself, believes that a few wrong turns on the campaign trail could bring Bush plummeting back to earth.
"The time between now and the election is an eternity," he said.