When Dan Quayle called his father to tell him he wanted to run for Congress in 1976, he got a crisp response.

"Go ahead, you won't win," James C. Quayle told his 29-year-old son, according to Orvas E. Beers, long-time Republican chairman of Allen County, Ind.

But Dan Quayle did win, to the surprise of his father, Beers and a great many other political pros.

Two years later, running for a second House term, he rolled up the biggest Republican victory margin in a century in the city of Fort Wayne. In 1980, he beat one of the state's most formidable Democratic campaigners, Sen. Birch Bayh, and entered the Senate. Since then, according to Indiana Republican Chairman Gordon Durnil, Quayle has consistently had the highest "favorable" ratings in polls of any high-level Republican in the state, including Ronald Reagan.

That is one side of Dan Quayle: the winning candidate, Indiana's "golden boy," charming, affable, a born campaigner for whom victory -- in his home state -- has always come easily.

But the qualities that have played so well in Indiana -- youthful energy, bustle and outspoken conservatism -- have not translated well to Washington or the national campaign trail. After 12 years in Congress, Quayle gets mixed marks from congressional colleagues and aides. On the campaign trail this fall, he is carefully monitored by his wife, Marilyn, who is his closest adviser, and others who have shielded him from tough questions and steered him clear of situations where he might flub his lines.

Access to the Republican vice presidential nominee has been carefully rationed. Requests to interview him and his wife for this article were turned down "now and forevermore," in the words of a press aide. The Quayle campaign has refused to release transcripts of his college and law school records.

Despite precautions designed to showcase Quayle's talents as a campaigner, the results have sometimes been embarrassing. Tossing away a prepared text to show his expertise in defense, Quayle misquoted a basketball coach as an expert on strategic defense and left his audience in confusion. Trying to explain a controversial Senate vote he cast the previous month, he blamed it on "youthful indiscretion." Speaking to tired, grimy-faced factory workers at the end of a long day in Ohio's Rust Belt, he noted that his children enjoy lacrosse, soccer and horseback riding.

In Washington, Quayle has not been a leading figure or spokesman on major issues. Dozens of interviews with associates and an examination of Quayle's legislative record reveal a politician who is still groping for a role in a body of older, more experienced and sometimes more politically savvy men and women. As a lawmaker, Quayle has sometimes been excitable, brash, ideologically inconsistent and willing to pursue causes that other, more established lawmakers have abandoned as lost.

During two terms in the House, his attendance at floor votes and committee meetings was the worst in the Indiana delegation, earning him a reputation as lazy and ineffective. In the Senate, Quayle has won higher grades for commitment and hard work. His major achievement was his cosponsorship, with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), of the 1982 Job Training Partnership Act, which has been substantially amended since it was passed.

In the last two years, Quayle has emerged as a more visible conservative on arms-control and labor issues. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he has become a loud supporter of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and a dogged critic of arms-control initiatives. As the ranking Republican of the key labor subcommittee of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, he has been the pro-business point man trying to hold back a wave of new legislation expanding the rights and benefits of workers -- such as the plant-closing bill that President Reagan signed last summer.

His impact usually has been as a spoiler -- occasionally successful -- attempting to block initiatives.

Quayle's life has been a sheltered and sunny one, lacking the landmarks of personal tragedy and defeat against which resilience and character are commonly measured. Although he is part of a restless, mobile generation, he was educated, married, performed his military service and employed -- all without leaving Indiana.

Born the oldest of four children on Feb. 4, 1947, James Danforth Quayle was fortunate. His father, James, a bluff former Marine, had married Corinne Pulliam, the daughter of Eugene C. Pulliam, one of the great newspaper tycoons. James Quayle worked for his father-in-law's newspapers in Indiana and in Phoenix. When the family moved to Arizona in 1955, they lived in a house bordering the Paradise Valley Country Club where Dan Quayle acquired a lifelong devotion to golf.

James Quayle was more interested in politics than golf. He and Corinne joined the John Birch Society and its crusade against what it saw as a worldwide communist conspiracy. The group's membership rolls were decreed secret when it was founded in Indianapolis in 1958, but James Quayle is proud of his affiliation and even prouder of the meeting he once had with Robert Welch, the Belmont, Mass., candy manufacturer who founded the organization. Meeting Welch, the senior Quayle has said, "was like meeting the president of the United States."

In 1963, Pulliam agreed to sell the Huntington paper to his son-in-law and daughter on a 10-year loan. The Quayles moved back to Indiana and bought a two-story house outside of town with a swimming pool in the back yard.

Dan, 16, entered Huntington High as a junior, joined the golf team, and found a new circle of five or six close friends. They led conventional, small-town teen-age lives: a night out was often spent dancing to the jukebox at the YMCA's "Swing Inn."

Though Dan Quayle was the scion of one of the most famous publishing families in the nation, he did not grow up in the wealthy setting of a Hearst or a Pulitzer. Eugene C. Pulliam, who died in 1975 and did not believe in inherited wealth, tied up most of his empire in a complicated trust intended to guarantee the financial security of his newspapers, not enrich his descendants.

According to executives of the Pulliam newspapers, Dan Quayle will never inherit in the trust and he will not begin to receive a portion of the dividends from it until after both his mother and her stepmother die.

When Dan Quayle first ran for Congress, he listed his net worth at $15,400. Figures released this month showed it has grown to $1,189,700, largely because of stock in the parent Pulliam newspaper company that he and his wife had acquired outside the trust, and their house in McLean.Remembered as Mediocre Student

In the fall of 1965, Quayle entered DePauw University, a small, academically respected school in Greencastle, Ind., that his parents, grandfather and uncle had attended. Following family tradition, he joined Delta Kappa Epsilon and lived in the "Deke" house, an imposing pile of Indiana limestone with gilded lions at the entryway.

Quayle chose political science as his major. He soon had a reputation with the faculty as a mediocre student adept at getting "from the Deke house to the golf course without passing through a classroom," one professor said.

To Mike Lawrence, one of his political science professors, Quayle was just one of dozens of indifferent students, "a forgettable character. Nothing of particular consequence was going on."

He failed his senior comprehensive exam in political science needed for graduation but later passed a substitute comprehensive exam.

With his college deferment due to run out on his May 25, 1969, graduation day, Quayle joined the Indiana National Guard headquarters unit in Indianapolis on May 19 with the help of some well-placed telephone calls, particularly one from an employee of his grandfather's who was a retired general in the Indiana Guard. After six months of active duty training, Quayle applied for admission to Indiana University's law school at Indianapolis, despite low grades at DePauw. He was admitted under an experimental summer program for students who would otherwise have been rejected.

At law school, Quayle worked days and went to most classes at night. James Quayle has said he picked up the tab for tuition and books but that his son had to pay his own living expenses.

With assistance from his father and M. Stanton Evans, then the editor of the Indianapolis News, Dan Quayle got a job as a research assistant in the office of Indiana Attorney General Theodore L. Sendak, a conservative Republican.

Lackluster a student as he was, Quayle reportedly had his eye set on high office. That ambition became clear to his law school classmate, Frank Pope, in bull sessions at the Pope home in Indianapolis. One afternoon in 1972, they saw Robert Redford in "The Candidate," a satirical movie about American politics that depicted Redford as a callow young politician who comes out of nowhere to unseat a popular incumbent. Upon winning, Redford turns to his campaign manager and asks, "What do we do now?" Pope remembers that Quayle and he ended up talking all night about the movie -- and politics.

In the bull sessions, Quayle talked about becoming governor. "We were dreaming," Pope said. "Danny's dream was to have a political career that could ultimately culminate in his being governor of Indiana."

Some say founding father Pulliam's ambitions for his grandson ran higher than that. One source acquainted with the family said "there's no doubt they wanted Dan to be president of the United States."

In 1972, Quayle met Marilyn Tucker, a night class student from a family with Indiana Republican roots even deeper than the Pulliams'. Her grandfather, James L. Tucker, had been a Republican circuit judge in the southern Indiana counties of Washington and Orange, Democratic strongholds since the age of Andrew Jackson. An uncle, James M. Tucker, was Indiana's Republican secretary of state from 1938-42.

This tradition of law and politics was a powerful influence on Marilyn's desire to become an attorney, according to her father, Warren S. Tucker, 75, a semiretired Indianapolis physician. Buttressing her ambition was the example of her late mother, who had a medical career before giving it up to raise her children.

Warren Tucker's main influence appears to have been in passing on strong values. A blessing was a part of meals, and children who got out of line received a lick or two with a ruler or paddle, though not enough to raise welts, Marilyn's brother James recalled.

A staunch fundamentalist Christian and "Bible" Presbyterian, Warren Tucker quit the First Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis while the children were growing up and switched to a more fundamentalist pulpit, where the teaching was "definitely based on the Bible as the word of God."

Marilyn took her strong religious convictions into her marriage, according to associates.

In the Quayle family, "the religion came through the Tuckers," said the Rev. Bill Pauley, pastor of the nondenominational Grace Bible Church that the young Quayles attended in Fort Wayne after they had completed law school and moved to Huntington.

Pauley says his church is rigorously fundamentalist in its acceptance of the literal truth of Scripture. It is also conservative on social issues, including abortion and homosexuality.

Dan and Marilyn wed in 1972, 10 weeks after they met. Classmates say she was a much sharper student. They nicknamed her "Merit" for her intellect and dedication.

A measure of Marilyn's determination was having labor induced for her first child in July 1974 so she could be sure that the birth would not conflict with her bar exam later that month. She took the exam seated on a special cushion, friends say. Her husband took his in another room set aside for those typing their tests, according to the Indiana State Board of Law Examiners.

Quayle & Quayle, attorneys at law, opened for business in an upstairs office at the Huntington Herald Press in 1974. Marilyn Quayle did most of the practicing while her husband busied himself as the paper's general manager.

Quayle's entry into politics in 1976, like so much else in his life before and since, happened fortuitously. The Republicans in his district unexpectedly lost their candidate for Congress, so GOP county chairman Beers needed to find someone to run against incumbent Democrat J. Edward Roush.

Quayle was suggested by Ernie Williams, then the editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, who thought Quayle was "bright, articulate, really fast on his feet."

Beers met Quayle at a luncheon in the Chamber of Commerce and liked what he saw. On the way out, Beers recalled: "I said, 'Danny, how would you like to run for Congress?' "

"You mean now?" Quayle asked.

"Yes."

"I'll have to check with my dad," said the young man, who knew his campaigning would take him away from his job at the paper.

James Quayle gave his go-ahead and made his prediction.Wife Takes Strong Role

Quayle announced his candidacy on March 4, 1976. His first campaign manager, Reid Nelson, then 24, remembers ordering thousands of "Quayle for Congress" buttons that turned out badly -- they were almost illegible. At a celebration of Quayle's victory in the May Republican primary, Marilyn Quayle confronted Nelson.

"She said, 'Your buttons are terrible. Before you do anything, you clear it with me first!' This was in front of every Republican who was anybody {in the district}. I felt about two inches tall," Nelson recalled.

Most of the motifs of Quayle's campaigns were present at that first one. He was the candidate of "downtown," passing a political litmus test given him by local business leaders. He was the candidate of "the right," supported by contributions from the National Rifle Association, the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) and less well-known conservative groups just beginning to flex their electoral muscles. He was the candidate of "the machine," handpicked by Beers.

Quayle was ready and willing to accept advice. When a few senior Republicans gathered in the back room of Mother's Saloon in Fort Wayne to plot his campaign strategy, it was Marilyn who met with them and fielded their questions about the candidate's positions on abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment. She let them know that she strongly opposed both -- and that Dan would as well.

"These emotional issues -- like abortion and ERA -- probably never crossed Dan's mind," recalled Walter Helmke, one of his mentors. "Both stands played well in the district."

But Quayle also showed himself capable then -- and in subsequent elections -- of developing his own volunteers and organizers outside the GOP precinct organization. His family's conservative credentials brought in money from right-wing organizations, and with the help of local supporters such as Rev. Bill Pauley, whose wife worked in his campaign, he also reached out to evangelicals and voters who did not usually get involved politically.

While GOP pros, who came to be known as the Quayle Quartet Plus One, devised strategy, Quayle displayed the fierce competitiveness that friends say he always showed at the golf course and any other endeavor that he really cared about. On Election Day, Roush became one of just eight House Democratic incumbents to lose their seats.

In the House, Quayle was part of a small group of young, conservative members who had strong views but were too junior to have much impact. He aligned himself with the tax-cutting economic views of Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and stuck to the pro-business leanings that he brought from Indiana. He voted against a new minimum wage law, funding of better benefits for miners with black lung disease, increasing the liability of companies causing oil spills, the safe drinking water bill, supplemental jobless benefits and consideration of federal strip-mining controls.

Quayle lined up as an opponent of such liberal-era favorites as the Legal Services Administration, fair housing laws and affirmative action.

Bonnie Bird, an attorney who was interviewed by Quayle for an speech writing and public relations job in 1980, said he struck her as "very shrewd," even as a House member. She said he decided against hiring her because she was too good-looking. "He said I was absolutely the right person for the job . . . but we would have to travel together and the problem was people would ask questions," she recalled. "Mr. Quayle said he couldn't afford it politically. He said it would become an issue . . . that people would think the worst."

Quayle also foreshadowed a future bent toward hopeless causes when he sponsored legislation to limit terms in Congress to a maximum of 12 years.

By late 1979, Bayh's liberal voting record and 18-year tenure in Washington had begun to catch up with him in his home state, and key members of the all-important business and civic establishment in Indianapolis decided to look elsewhere.

When the immensely popular Gov. Otis Bowen (R) dropped out of possible contention because of his wife's illness, Quayle was perceived by Indianapolis' "downtown" Republicans as having the best chance to unseat Bayh.

Not all Indiana Republicans were enthralled. Paul E. Johnson, the GOP chairman in Huntington County, told colleagues throughout the state in a two-page letter that he was concerned about Quayle's "lack of depth and maturity" and the extent of his father's influence over him.

"To put it in a word, he {Dan Quayle} is a 'lightweight,' " Johnson said. "His major thrust in Congress is to crank out flamboyant P.R. releases and hollow resolutions that die in three days or less with no effect."

Quayle, however, easily won the Republican primary against Roger Marsh, a Muncie businessman and former state highway director.A Strategy to Unseat Sen. Bayh

In the fall, Quayle once again proved to be a hard-charging, tireless campaigner. Consistently anti-labor in his voting record, Quayle could charm blue-collar industrial workers.

His main message was economic: the need to fight inflation and unemployment. But he also reached out for new conservative voters, and his campaign drew heavily on a parallel organization that tapped into support from the state's 400,000 to 500,000 "evangelical" voters.

Quayle responded angrily to Bayh's charge that money was being "funneled" to him from "the New Right, NCPAC, the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan" and other groups. Quayle said he resented everything the "far right" groups stood for.

One group that supported him and four other Republican Senate candidates in 1980 was the Liberty Lobby, whose political action committee, United Congressional Action, sent Quayle $500. The Liberty Lobby had long been anathema to many conservatives because of its overt anti-Semitism. Its founder, Willis Carto, has portrayed the Holocaust as a hoax, and the group has been attacked by such conservatives as William F. Buckley.

In addition to sending the Quayle campaign money, the Liberty Lobby's newspaper, The Spotlight, ran articles during the campaign criticizing the National Rifle Association for remaining neutral in the Indiana Senate race instead of backing Quayle, as it had in his House races.

The Spotlight's Dec. 29 issue carried a three-page interview with Quayle in which he congratulated the paper for its articles on the NRA's role in his race.

When a Post reporter asked questions last month about this interview and the $500 contribution, Quayle responded: "I beg that I simply didn't know what they stood for. I had never been a reader of those publications. And I don't believe I ever said that I was a reader . . . . Now that doesn't mean he didn't show me an article or something like that."

On Election Day, Bayh ran 245,000 votes ahead of President Jimmy Carter in the state, but in the Reagan landslide, Quayle won by 167,000 votes.

Arriving in the Senate at the age of 33, Quayle seemed determined to dispel the easygoing image he had earned in the House.

He hired a staff on domestic policy that has gotten high marks from other staffs for its professionalism and applied himself on such matters as Pentagon procurement reform and the Job Training Partnership Act.

"I find the 'lightweight' description {of Quayle} surprising," said Robert M. Guttman, his chief counsel and a long-time Capitol Hill professional who went to work for him in the Senate. "When he gets interested in an issue he really wants to understand it, and ideology moves into the background. He really chews on it."

Nevertheless, Democrats and a number of Republicans believe Quayle is vulnerable on his record and personal performance.

A common theme that emerges from interviews with those who work with him is his diligence. But his hard work and attention to detail, they say, is often narrowly focused on "hobby horses," such as his near-fanatical interest in the development of accurate, nonnuclear cruise missiles in Europe -- an interest that is not shared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff or many of his Senate colleagues.

On some occasions -- such as his vote in the Armed Services Committee in 1983 in favor of a pay raise for soldiers and sailors -- he has not been afraid to buck his Senate elders, in that case then-Chairman John G. Tower (R-Tex.).

That vote won him Democratic plaudits for "good character." Less admirable in the eyes of his critics has been his willingness to carry on a fight long after even the Reagan administration has judged it to have been lost. Last summer, for instance, he voted against the plant-closing bill, even after Reagan had indicated he would sign it reluctantly.

One of the most controversial moments of his Senate career appears to have grown out of this uncompromising strain in his character: the confirmation of Daniel A. Manion to the federal appellate bench. Quayle, his wife and Manion had all worked at the statehouse while in law school and Quayle was chief sponsor of the nomination in 1986.

Opponents argued that Manion, whose father was a founding member of the John Birch Society, was unqualified for the post because he lacked federal court experience. He was confirmed on a final vote of 50 to 49, but only after an unusual incident on the Senate floor in which Quayle pleaded with Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.) to withdraw her vote against Manion because he had been unable to locate Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), assumed to be a Manion supporter.

Some news reports at the time described Quayle as "red-faced" and "gesturing wildly," even in tears. Kassebaum said in a recent interview that she preferred to describe her Senate colleague as "just hot."

"There was pandemonium on the floor," she said. "He wanted to pair my vote with Goldwater's. He had run to the Russell Building looking for him."

Kassebaum withdrew her vote only to learn later that Goldwater was lurking in the cloak room, planning to abstain. But she said: "It was an honest thing on {Quayle's} part and not something Dan should be faulted for."Retraining Displaced Workers

Quayle's first major Senate responsibility was chairing the unemployment subcommittee of the Labor and Human Resources Committee. It was in that capacity that he helped draft legislation to replace CETA -- the Comprehensive Education and Training Act, a program providing public service jobs to the unemployed that the administration was determined to kill.

Initially uncertain there was any role for the federal government in this field, Quayle soon decided there was. Aides said he was influenced by the plight of Indiana industrial workers who needed retraining to find new jobs. Perhaps equally important, the U.S. business community wanted a federal jobs program, provided local business and government interests controlled the programs and the money. That was the genesis of Quayle's cosponsorship with Kennedy of the Job Training Partnership Act, which set up local councils to utilize federal block grants.

In 1983, Armed Services Chairman Tower named Quayle head of a task force on Pentagon procurement. The House had passed a tough, far-reaching measure, and according to several congressional sources, Quayle was given the task of producing legislation that would satisfy the rising public clamor to end Pentagon abuses-without materially changing the system.

His critics say he carried out this task well. The Senate produced legislation that, in the view of House liberals, created a toothless reform, including a new post of under secretary of defense for acquisition without strong authority.

Quayle, according to sources, arrived at the House-Senate conference on the bill with orders to limit the reforms sought by the House. "He was very tough, and we got rolled," one House observer said.

Democrats have seized on Quayle's candidacy as one of the weakest links in the Bush campaign, hazing him on the campaign trail and gleefully sporting "President Quayle" buttons. But Quayle seems cheerfully unfazed.

"Watch that debate," he said of Wedneday night's scheduled appearance with Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (Tex.), the Democratic vice presidential nominee. "They're going to get a far better impression of who I really am . . . . I have to perform between now and Nov. 8. And I know it. Better than anybody in the world."

Staff writers R.H. Melton, Michael Isikoff and Joe Pichirallo and researcher Michelle Hall contributed to this report.