WASHINGTON (AP) _ Who are these ''cultural elite'' so mocked by Vice President Dan Quayle?

''They know who they are,'' Quayle says.

For the record, he's defined them as the big-money sophisticates in Hollywood and elsewhere who sneer at traditional moral values.

''The cultural elites respect neither tradition nor standards. They believe that moral truths are relative and all lifestyles are equal,'' Quayle explains. ''They seem to think the family is an arbitrary arrangement of people who decide to live under the same roof, that fathers are disposable and that parents need not be married or even of opposite sexes.''

What started last month as a skirmish against television's ''Murphy Brown'' has escalated into a full-scale family values crusade.

While Quayle's turn of phrase has drawn Democratic fire, some in the party fear they're walking into a Republican trap - that Democrats will be linked with Quayle's ''cultural elite'' and be seen as hostile to family values.

The vice president picked up the refrain again Thursday at the National Right to Life convention in Arlington, Va., where he told anti-abortion activists that these ''self-appointed cultural elites'' were intolerant and believers ''in the right to dispose of life.''

Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, called Quayle's remarks ''a cynical repetition appealing to visceral anti-intellectualism in American life.''

''It's the ugliest strain in American politics. Agnew tried it,'' said Botstein. ''It's really the fear of education, the fear of ideas.''

In 1970, Vice President Spiro Agnew was point man in a battle against the ''effete snobs'' of the news media and other Nixon administration critics. Agnew later was forced to resign for taking bribes while governor of Maryland.

But if Agnew delivered his lines with a snarl, Quayle's barbs often come with a smile.

At the National Right to Life speech, Quayle paused after uttering ''cultural elites'' to grin and relish in his new applause line.

Gary Bauer, a onetime domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan, said, ''There's a big difference between the two. Agnew was the hatchet man sent to fend off the attacks by the 'nattering nabobs of negativism' against Nixon.

''That's (not) what Quayle is doing. He's trying to get people to think about the cultural cleavage in this country and decide what side they're on,'' said Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative lobbying group.

Ben Wattenberg, a Democratic pundit and author, said Quayle was raising social issues that have ''been in our politics at least since 1964 with Barry Goldwater.''

''That's what the flag factories and Willie Horton was all about in 1988,'' said Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. ''The central problems in our society are value-related. That doesn't mean you have to agree with Quayle on it.''

Bill Clinton, the soon-to-be-Democratic nominee, accused Quayle on Thursday of seeking to divide the nation. ''I'm tired of people ... like the vice president pretending that the only problems are the absence of values.''

''The thing that bothers me is there are so many people in America who believe in family values and hard work and who play by the rules and they're still getting the shaft,'' Clinton said in Little Rock, Ark.

But James David Barber, a Duke University political science professor, said Quayle was on to something.

''We're in very big trouble,'' said Barber. ''The country is fragmented. Things in many ways have fallen apart - the Congress, political parties, many universities, neighborhoods, families.'' Spiraling homicide rates are just part of the problem, he said.

''I happen to be a Democrat, but what is coming out of Hollywood is shocking'' with films steeped in sex and violence, Barber said. ''No matter whether Quayle is wrong about other things, if he's bringing up that we have some heavy wrongness of behavior in the United States, then that's right.''