Alexander opens drive with blast at Washington

March 01, 1995|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Sun Staff Correspondent

MARYVILLE, Tenn. -- Standing under a dark gray sky that threatened to rain on his parade, Lamar Alexander declared his candidacy for president yesterday with a pledge to lead a "people's revolution" committed to reducing the role of a big government that has become "an arrogant empire, obnoxious and increasingly irrelevant."

The Tennessee Republican said he was running for president because "I am absolutely committed to moving responsibility out of Washington and giving us the freedom to make decisions for ourselves.

"Deep down in my heart I believe that we know what to do, and . . . I am determined to revive the American spirit the old-fashioned way -- neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block and family by family," he said.

The theme of the former governor's message was that, rather than leaving decisions in the hands of the federal government, power should be returned to the state and local levels.

Specifically, Mr. Alexander reiterated promises he has made in more than a year as an undeclared candidate. As president, he said, he would abolish the Department of Education he once headed, end federal welfare programs and move "most" job training, law enforcement and Medicaid back to the states -- all part of a plan to dismantle $200 billion worth of federal programs.

Mr. Alexander's announcement combined both the usual appeal to nostalgia and emphasis on his middle-class roots in Maryville. After appearing on morning TV interview programs, he walked from his boyhood home on Ruth Street to the high school he had attended. Then it was on to the Blount County Courthouse where he recalled, before several hundred supporters, that as a boy of 10 he had been introduced by his father to a congressman, Howard H. Baker Sr.

The 54-year-old candidate wore the red plaid shirt that became his trademark when he walked 1,022 miles across the state in his successful 1978 campaign for governor. Although rain had been drenching east Tennessee for two days, Mr. Alexander was given a respite for his 50-minute ceremony.

The Tennessean became the second declared candidate for the Republican nomination, following Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas by four days. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole is planning a similar display of his roots in Kansas in April, and there may be several other candidates before the field is complete.

Little-known nationally, Mr. Alexander trails both Mr. Dole and Mr. Gramm in opinion polls. But his candidacy is being taken seriously by political professionals who believe he may appeal to many Republican moderates unless pre-empted by some better-known figure, such as Gov. Pete Wilson of California.

Mr. Alexander described his theme as a natural evolution from the 1994 election, in which Republicans won control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

"Someone asked me yesterday if the new Republican Congress is going too far," he said. "Just the reverse. I am afraid it will be too timid. The greatest danger Republicans have is this: Now that we have captured Washington, we must not let Washington capture us."

Although he reiterated his support for term limits, Mr. Alexander did not use the line that had been the staple of his undeclared candidacy when discussing Congress -- "Cut their pay and send them home" -- which has become a discordant note now that Republicans are in charge. He said only that he would "encourage the Congress to go home, too, to spend six months at home with the people they represent -- because you know what they should do."

He described his opposition to affirmative action, his support as governor of a law allowing a moment of silence and voluntary prayer in schools, his advocacy of school choice through a voucher system, his record of balancing the state budget for eight years and his support for a reduction in capital gains taxes.

However, Mr. Alexander gave tacit recognition to the suspicion among some Republicans that he may be more moderate than they would prefer. He did not volunteer his views on the touchiest issue among Republicans today: abortion rights. On other occasions, he has described himself as "pro-life" and willing to accept state restrictions but opposed to any federal role on abortion, including a constitutional amendment backed by many cultural conservatives.

After the ceremony, Mr. Alexander flew off on a three-day trip to New Hampshire, Iowa, Texas and Florida -- all prime targets in the quest for delegates to the 1996 Republican national convention.

The announcement culminated years of planning by Mr. Alexander that first surfaced when he began meeting with Washington political reporters immediately after the 1992 election and describing his own fully-developed plan to run.

Mr. Alexander began his career in politics as a young aide to then-Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr., probably the most admired figure in modern Tennessee politics. He spent two years as a junior staff member in the Nixon White House before returning to Tennessee in 1970.

He made his first run for governor and lost in 1974. But after he put on the plaid shirt and made his walk, he won two terms by comfortable margins. As governor, he earned a reputation for attracting industry to his state and for an education reform plan that included merit pay for teachers.

After his eight years in Nashville, he took his family off for a six-month hiatus in Australia, wrote a book and then returned for three years as president of the University of Tennessee before becoming Education secretary under President George Bush in 1990.

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