Under the best of circumstances, this won't be easy.

We are talking about a candidate for national office who apparently confused the Holocaust with the stock market crash. A skilled debater who was soundly defeated on the abortion question by an 11-year-old girl. A man whose academic record, war record and voting record were mined for gag lines by everyone from Lloyd Bentsen to David Letterman.A fellow who is not, need we remind you, Jack Kennedy. Or possibly even George Kennedy.

He is, however, the only vice president-elect we've got. And if the Dan Quayle jokes are not likely to disappear soon (worst three years of Quayle's life? Third grade . . . Title of the new movie about Quayle's wartime service? "Full Dinner Jacket"), neither is the junior senator from Indiana, tapped by George Bush to represent "his generation" down the hallway from the Oval Office. And so: Image-wise, as they say out there in Spin City, what does he do next? Can this political sow's ear be turned into an administrative silk purse?

Scott Miller, creator of the infamous "Packaging of George Bush" Dukakis commercials, offers some free advice - to be taken, conceivably, with a generous dose of that old bromide, you get what you pay for.

"Quayle's got to do a few things well in order to demonstrate he can do anything well," Miller says. "To me that means, one, avoid the limelight for a while, and, two, do his homework. Three? Admit right out front he doesn't know everything about, say, the drug issue, and appoint a strong chief lieutenant like (U.S. attorney for New York state) Rudolph Giuliano. Bush never solved the drug problem by himself. Quayle shouldn't pretend to."

Conceding that Quayle is "already the most maligned vice president ever, including Spiro Agnew," Miller would not take the extreme step of keeping Driver Dan off the golf course. In other words, let Quayle be Quayle - with a slight hook.

"The guy happens to play golf, and plays it well," observes Miller. "But I'd tell him to stay away from the corporate boondoggles. Stick to charity events."

A former Sawyer/Miller Group colleague, Joel McCleary, who now runs his own international consulting operation, thinks Quayle's handlers have already laid the foundation for a successful vice presidency by lowering expectations one full floor below basement level. In a way, McCleary says, the seminal question is: How can Quayle fail?

"His biggest problem is the power of negative prophecy," avows McCleary, whose own client list runs the gamut from Oscar Arias to Corazon Aquino. "Remember Gerald Ford? Once he acquired an image as a stumbler, he could not walk down a flight of stairs without his unconscious mind screaming, don't fall! So - whoops - he tripped. You can already see the pressure not to screw up reflected in Quayle's eyes."

McCleary mentions another White House image-control precedent: Nancy Reagan, scatterbrained socialite. Just when teeny-weeny handguns and $2,000 table settings threatened to bury the first lady under a blizzard of negative PR, along came the Just Say No campaign, and . . . voila! Instant credibility as a serious-issues kind of woman.

"What Quayle needs to do is find something that touches a more compassionate nerve," says McCleary. "Maybe like disabled vet groups. He could turn the whole National Guard issue around by saying, `Look, like so many of my generation, I didn't serve in Vietnam. But a lot of fine men did, and a lot came home disabled. We need to deal with their problems.'

"The real question," he concludes, "is, will Dan Quayle grow from this campaign? When JFK went to West Virginia (and faced anti-Catholic prejudice), it made him a stronger candidate and a better person. Rather than bash the press for going after him, Quayle has the same opportunity to grow."

Others aren't so sure. Ed Reilly, a key operative in the Gephardt and Dukakis campaigns of months past, advocates "maximizing flight time by contracting for Sky Pig (the Dukakis campaign plane), on the theory that the longer he's aloft, the less he'll have to say." More seriously, Reilly adds, "Whatever experience and goodwill Quayle built up in the Senate has totally evaporated. Most of America now perceives him as a draft-dodging flake."

Bob Beckel, 1984 Mondale campaign chairman, calls Quayle "the Cabbage Patch doll of this political season in Washington. Everybody wants a piece of him."

So what's a concerned staff to do?

"Seriously?" asks Beckel. "OK: Keep his profile low and only let him be photographed with heads of state, like they did this week with (West German) Chancellor (Helmut) Kohl. Give him no job with any high potential for failure. And, in about six months, send him on a trip to someplace foreign and marginal, like the Caribbean. But stay away from funerals."

Alan Caruba, a 25-year advertising vet and founder of the resolutely nonaligned think tank, the Boring Institute, offers a kinder, gentler solution.

"Number one," he says, "I'd have Quayle write a book, outlining his personal views and philosophy. He'd need help, of course - most political books are co-written with professionals - but it could serve as a kind of resume by which people would get to know him better. Next, have him head up an important government task force - not drugs - on child abuse or another family issue, since his greatest asset seems to be his wife."

"Three," he continues, "a few well-timed appearances on morning TV news shows would help, but only on the condition that he be thoroughly briefed beforehand. Unfortunately, I'm not sure the Bush people will allow him that kind of exposure. And four, I'd have him pay serious attention to how the nation's comedians are treating him. They're really the country's political early-warning system."

With the sound of the air-raid sirens ringing on the horizon, a consensus of sorts, then: Hunker down, play the long irons, act vice presidential, and just say no to the drug task force.