DAN QUAYLE is supposed to be a Robert Redford look-alike, but they gave him a Jack Kennedy haircut and sent him into the vice-presidential debate hoping to cloak him in a kind of charismatic - albeit conservative - Kennedy aura. Senator Quayle himself worked hard at the comparison, leaning on Kennedy's record and youthfulness to support his own vice-presidential candidacy. It didn't work. Mr. Quayle does not have the Kennedy wit, the charm, the intellect. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, Quayle's opponent, was probably right when he snapped: ``You're no Jack Kennedy,'' although many must have flinched at the cold contempt with which he delivered the line.
But still, if Quayle emerged as no Kennedy, neither did he emerge as the kind of political Howdy-Doody the Dukakis-Bentsen camp has tried to represent him as.
Many Republicans are embarrassed by George Bush's choice of Quayle. There are other available Republican politicians with more experience and stature. Why not them? Why did Mr. Bush opt for Quayle? The questions linger.
So it was inevitable that Quayle's qualifications for the vice-presidency - and if necessary, the presidency - were central to Wednesday night's debate.
But the hard question that Republicans, and those leaning toward the Bush ticket, have to answer is this: Is Dan Quayle so abysmal a vice-presidential running mate that they cannot vote for George Bush? Can those who are not wild about Quayle steel themselves to vote instead for Mike Dukakis - also no Jack Kennedy? The answer, I suspect: probably not.
Quayle fumbled and appeared ill at ease when pressed to be specific on how he would handle a sudden ascent to the presidency. Knowing the Cabinet by first name is hardly a strong recommendation for greatness. But all in all, he remained cool, in control of his material and presentation, unawed by his opponent, and unscarred by the pounding he has received from the press. He did not, as some of his critics had predicted, become breakfast for Senator Bentsen.