Lamar Alexander's Broadcast Ambition


April 30, 1994|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Washington Bureau of The Sun

MANCHESTER, N.H. — MANCHESTER, N.H.-- In 1992, the presidential candidates discovered the virtues of the multiple media campaign -- appearances on MTV, Phil Donahue and Arsenio Hall were all the rage -- as well as the value of "800" phone numbers and town meetings.

Now, in the embryonic stages of the contest for the next Republican nomination, the something-new-and-not-entirely-different for 1996 may be the use of satellite television to reach hundreds of "neighborhood meetings" -- an innovation being exploited by Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee and secretary of education in the Bush administration.

Mr. Alexander is by any reasonable definition a long shot for that nomination, although no more so than Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas was at this same point in the last presidential campaign cycle. As with candidate Clinton, the former Tennessean is focused intensely on the prize. Indeed, the votes were scarcely counted in 1992 before he began telling anyone who asked that, yes, as a matter of fact, he probably would run for president.

And, long shot or not, Mr. Alexander has used the satellite network the second Tuesday of every month to give himself a pronounced early organizational advantage over other Republicans who will be competing for the nomination.

When he broadcast from the Bedford, N.H., town hall this month, for example, he reached more than 2,500 of these neighborhood meetings across the country -- including more than 200 here in New Hampshire, scene of the first primary in the 1996 campaign.

The Republican Exchange Satellite Network, sponsor of the broadcasts, is not a campaign organization per se. Nor is the content of the broadcasts a blatant Lamar Alexander campaign commercial. Instead, Mr. Alexander acts as a moderator leading a discussion on a particular issue and giving opportunities to other Republicans all across the party's ideological spectrum in an exercise that Mr. Alexander likes to call "Republican choir practice."

The neighborhood meeting that originated here, for example, included Rep. Bill Zeliff live and taped contributions from Gov. Steve Merrill and Sens. Bob Smith and Judd Gregg, which effectively touches all the bases, plus a host of local officials. The topic -- to the surprise of no one who knows the obsessions of New Hampshire politics -- was taxes and spending, or, as Mr. Alexander phrased it, "how to keep taxes down in Washington, D.C."

What the format suggests is that Mr. Alexander is interested first in eliciting the views of Republicans of all stripes from all parts of the country. The neighborhood meetings are described as "an outside-the-Beltway, grass-roots idea network" -- with the emphasis on the "outside the Beltway." If Republicans who watch or participate want to get the notion that Mr. Alexander might be the candidate of change the next time around, so be it.

And the spread of the neighborhood meetings -- even if many may be couples with a satellite dish -- has been extensive enough that Mr. Alexander now has a mailing list of 60,000 Republicans across the country, a not-inconsiderable asset for a relatively unknown former governor and Cabinet member.

In Iowa and New Hampshire, the device is particularly intriguing. It is here that the first primary will be held, and it is in Iowa that the first precinct caucuses will be convened eight days earlier. Those events are still 21 months away, and most rank-and-file Republicans probably are not yet very interested. But the several thousand party activists in both states are just the kind of people who will join in such neighborhood meetings.

In New Hampshire, Mr. Alexander clearly has stolen an early organizational advantage over his many better-known potential rivals. He has a young supporter, William Cahill, acting as chairman of the neighborhood meetings. And, more to the point, the Tennessee Republican already has enlisted the open support of Thomas Rath, a Concord lawyer, former attorney general and perhaps the state's most street-wise Republican activist. Such a commitment so early in the process from someone with Mr. Rath's credentials is by any measure a political coup.

Mr. Alexander used the broadcast here to extend his reach and build his name recognition among potential primary voters. For a modest $22,500, he bought the same 8 p.m. hour of the satellite broadcast to air the program on the state's only television station, WMUR-TV here, and reached an audience estimated at 40,000 viewers. The broadcasts also are routinely offered to local cable systems, where they sometimes run repeatedly.

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