Dan Quayle was rolling into his stump speech in a raucous college gymnasium in southwestern Louisiana’s bayou country when a young woman screamed over the din: “We love you, Dan.”
The Republican vice presidential nominee grinned and leaned into the microphone. “I’ve only been here a short time, but I love you too.”
The quick reply spoke of bigger things. Last week, the Indiana senator, the candidate who so often displayed the tremulous fright of cornered prey, relaxed. Out came a semblance of the old Dan Quayle, the candidate he says he was during his previous races--chipper, brashly confident and relentlessly aggressive.
He stopped to talk to a protester outside a rally in Missoula, Mont. He plied his audience with jokes in Albuquerque. He chatted with reporters for an hour, accompanied by the blare of rock music, as his chartered jet flew across Middle America.
Origins of Change
The origins of Quayle’s much-ballyhooed declaration last week that he was asserting independence from his Bush campaign handlers are still debated.
But whether Quayle is bucking the handlers, as he says, or they are cannily allowing him to think he is, the Indiana senator is exhibiting a markedly different style.
His new moves are hardly dramatic departures from the typical political campaign, but they represent a switch from the insular, pre-declaration routine followed by Quayle.
Quayle calls his new strategy “controlled spontaneity” and in lengthy interviews describes himself as a candidate who finally feels he has his legs under him.
“I was just trying to feel my way through this national campaign and what the ground rules were, what the expectations are,” he said. “It’s just taken me a little while.”
Substantively, not much has changed since Quayle’s announcement that he would follow his instincts rather than the dictates of the Bush campaign.
Performs His Duty
He still depends largely on speeches written by Bush staffers, and at every stop performs the vice presidential nominee’s duty--scorning the other party’s presidential candidate, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.
In Appleton, Wis., where he appeared at an airport rally before traveling here, Quayle sneered at a familiar topic, Dukakis’ stewardship of the Massachusetts environment.
“He thinks an oilman is someone who just went swimming in Boston Harbor,” Quayle said.
But his demeanor has warmed and his one-liners are more naturally delivered. On Saturday in Eau Claire, Wis., he was ushered into a rally and--as his opponents often do--he made a play on his name that the audience greeted with laughter.
“I’ve been told to keep my remarks relatively brief,” he said. “I understand Quayle-hunting season begins at noon.”
The easy charm acquired by most national politicians--an element missing from Quayle’s early repertoire--has likewise begun to surface.
Connects With Elderly
To residents of a home for the elderly in Greenville, Ill., he offered a gentle reminder. “Make sure you’re going to vote,” he suggested, then paused a beat. “That is, if you’re going to vote for George Bush.” The senior citizens beamed at him as they would a favorite grandson.
But his efforts are still ragged. His answers to routinely asked questions appear to come easier, but Quayle can still be stumped by the most ordinary--but unexpected--queries.
In Ft. Smith, Ark., the morning after Bush’s perceived victory in the second presidential debate, a local reporter asked Quayle if he would model his vice presidency after any other.
“I don’t know if there’s one that comes to mind, except . . .” he began. He paused and looked at an aide. “Yes, I think that one I’d like to pattern myself after is George Bush.”
And while Quayle now commands a more positive response from crowds of supporters, he often seems to have difficulty connecting with individuals. As he walks along a line of supporters, Quayle will shake hands with one person without looking at them, his eyes focused instead down the line.
In Napoleon, Ill., earlier last week, he strode into the small town’s coffee shop with his ever-present pack of reporters in tow. Two blond girls with gap-toothed grins began singing “Dan, Dan, He’s Our Man.” Quayle did not look their way.
He sat down at a table and conversed with some adults. A few minutes later the girls, now standing behind Quayle, resumed the chant. Only after several lines did he turn to greet them.
He often can underscore the very qualms that polls show the public has about his candidacy. Trying to rescue himself from a controversy over what he would do if he had to assume the presidency, Quayle said he would draw up contingency plans and keep them in a safe.
Then, as though the American people would not trust plans that he alone concocted, he added that he would do it with the help of “other people.”
The most pronounced shift in Quayle’s behavior in the days since he declared his independence has been his courting of the national news media. Asked whether that was the only change, Quayle said the other day, “That’s a good part of it.”
The limited metamorphosis began with Quayle’s declaration that he was “Dr. Spin,” a name implying that he is controlling the campaign and delivering the daily message, or “spin,” as it is known.
Changes Previous Habit
He also has moved from his previous habit of avoiding the traveling press. Now he stops at every camera that turns its lens to him, and each night ventures to the press cabin of his plane to chat.
The changes are beneficial to Quayle and the Bush campaign--humanizing him and making him appear less the hothouse flower under guard by his own aides--and the Bush campaign’s obvious delight at the new persona has fueled suspicion that the move was engineered to thrust Quayle from the defensive orbit he inhabited for two months.
‘Dr. Spin’ Uniform
Campaign aides, in fact, on Saturday presented Quayle with a green surgeon’s jumpsuit, with the name “Dr. Spin” stamped on its front, at a Washington rally.
Quayle denies that the change was engineered for him, insisting that he took steps to free himself after becoming angered at critical post-debate remarks by Bush campaign aides.
His new, more open tactics promote “a lot of hand-wringing” at Bush campaign headquarters, he said, sounding pleased.
But the picture he draws of someone imposing his will on campaign advisers is a stretch, given that the campaign still determines where he will go and largely what he will say. And Quayle behaves less like an entirely autonomous candidate than one who after two months in a whirlwind of national politics has begun to feel solid ground beneath him.
A senior aide said it was assumed all along that Quayle would at some point strain at the ropes. A newly picked vice presidential nominee must “sink or swim,” the aide said. “The point was to keep him afloat while he learned to swim.”
Quayle said his “fairly cautious” nature kept him from insisting on more flexibility before now.
‘Got to Get Comfortable’
“I’ve got to get comfortable with what I’m doing before I’m just simply going to go out and do what I think is absolutely best and being confident of the course I’m on,” he said. “I don’t work well in a controlled environment, and I didn’t (work well) for how many weeks?”
Like a true believer reciting his dogma, Quayle repeatedly these days calls attention to his instincts and judgment--two issues central to his acceptance by voters.
“I think I’ve made good judgments in the past,” he said. “I’m convinced I’ll make good judgments as we go along.”
According to Quayle, he will make the judgments.
“You can say it’s a higher wire that we’re walking on, but it will help George Bush,” he said. “Let me say I’m a lot happier now.”