While President Bush soars, Dan Quayle wallows, his rating in opinion polls hardly benefiting from gulf war euphoria. Yet the White House insists Quayle is "lock-solid" on the 1992 Republican ticket.

But the question is whether by 1996, Americans can think of Quayle as "President Quayle.""I think he's getting a bad rap," said political scientist Theodore Lowi of Cornell University, who quickly added that he's no fan of Quayle. "Part of the wimp factor for Bush came from his behaving like a vice president should."

And that, said Lowi, is what Quayle is doing.

Bush managed to overcome jibes that he was a wimp, a lap dog, a second banana unwilling to cite any issue on which he differed with Ronald Reagan. So, why not Quayle?

"Nobody ever said George Bush wasn't smart," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "Nobody ever said George Bush didn't have experience."

A Republican who insisted on anonymity put it more harshly: "No one thought George Bush was too stupid to be president."

Friends, foes and academics speculate at length on the meaning and the depth of the vice president's image problem and what he might do to repair it. Ironically, the prospect that Republicans have a sure winner in 1992 is prompting concern that the GOP could find itself with a sure loser in '96.

Special notice is given to polls that say Quayle finishes nearly 20 points behind Gen. Colin Powell when Republicans are asked their preference for the 1992 vice presidential nomination.

Dump Quayle for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? No way, says the White House.

But it's an idea that makes the hearts of Quayle critics beat a little faster. They argue that Quayle can't win in '96 and that after two terms as vice president he'd have a big edge in the race for the GOP nomination.

"The fear is that the party is sufficiently made up of loyalists that Quayle could use the trappings of Air Force 2," said another anonymous Republican critic of the vice president. "The fear is that he could ride that all the way to the nomination and, of course, then there goes what would then be a 16-year string of control of the White House."

Mitch Daniels, a former White House political director, brushes off the Quayle bashing.

"All vice presidents face this," Daniels said. "But George Bush proved they could not only surmount it, but do it very suddenly. Right now, Dan Quayle never looked any better from the standpoint that the ticket is looking very formidable and scintilla of a chance that he wasn't going to be on it has been erased."

"We're going to get used to Dan Quayle," said scholar Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. "His hair is going to gray, lines will appear on his face."

Hess, under the assumption that a Bush-Quayle ticket is victorious next year, added: "The American people will learn to live with Dan Quayle. The problem then becomes contemplating him as president."