Alexander aims to step out of the GOP pack in N.H.

ON THE POLITICAL SCENE

June 24, 1995|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Republican presidential candidate Lamar Alexander, who walked across Tennessee in the process of being elected governor in 1978, has decided that one good hike deserves another. He is going to leg it across parts of New Hampshire in advance of that state's 1996 first-in-the-nation primary, hoping just as he did in Tennessee 17 years ago to generate enough publicity and support to make him a winner.

Compared to Alexander's trek across his home state, however, the New Hampshire exercise will be a mere stroll.

In 1978, he covered 1,022 miles; this time it will be only 80 miles -- from Concord in the center of New Hampshire to the seacoast city of Portsmouth, in starts and stops from next month until just before the February primary.

Alexander, in announcing the latest walk, said he will stay overnight with local folks, "have supper with them, stay up late rTC talking with them and with their friends."

Sound familiar? It should. A Georgia peanut farmer and former governor of Georgia named Jimmy Carter did all those things in his successful 1976 presidential primary campaign -- and

conspicuously made his own bed the next morning to boot.

Another presidential candidate, aristocratic New York Mayor John Lindsay, similarly bedded down on a living room couch or two in the 1972 Democratic primary in Wisconsin but apparently achieved little more than a backache and the discomfort of his small-town hosts. He finished sixth in an eight-man field and quit the race.

Campaigning by gimmickry is, in fact, old hat, though with a new wrinkle or two in every campaign as candidates -- particularly long shots such as Alexander is in New Hampshire -- and their campaign strategists labor to find ways to draw media attention and voter support.

The walk-across-the-state gimmick embraced again by Alexander gained national attention in Florida in 1970, when current Democratic Gov. Lawton (still known as "Walkin' Lawton") Chiles hiked across his state and into the U.S. Senate.

Two years later, the appropriately named Dan Walker took to Illinois' highways and byways and wound up the state's Democratic governor. So Alexander's Tennessee waltz in '78 was hardly revolutionary. In 1988, then Gov. Bruce Babbitt, now the secretary of interior, tried a different twist by biking across Iowa, to little avail.

A bit more substantive campaign gimmick was devised in 1974 when Democrat Tom Harkin, running for Congress in Iowa, hit on the idea of "work days" -- actually working side by side with voters at their everyday jobs for a full shift.

The exercise enabled him in a short time to speak knowledgeably about a number of jobs and fields of work -- and to convey a sense of solidarity with the workers. He won, and has continued the work days ever since, first as a House member, later as a senator.

In Florida in 1986, Democratic Senate candidate Bob Graham did the same thing, working at a variety of tasks including chicken-plucking on the way to victory. On one occasion, he showed up as a bellboy for a primary opponent checking into a hotel.

Just last fall, Independent Angus King, running for governor in Maine, spent entire weeks visiting a single industry to learn about its problems, and was elected.

All these gimmicks have proved to be most productive for little-known candidates in local or statewide races, although the success of Jimmy Carter sleeping in private homes and toting his own clothes bag gives hope to presidential aspirants like Alexander as well.

The former Tennessee governor has already made heavy use of a symbol of his 1978 walk -- a red-and-black checkered shirt -- to convey a down-home image. He wore it in making his formal announcement of candidacy and in television ads -- to considerable press derision.

So far none of the gimmickry has raised Alexander out of the pack trailing Republican front-runner Bob Dole in the major national polls. But he continues to try, as well as employing the latest communications technology, including the Internet, to reach voters.

Candidates from Carter on down have insisted that they have learned much about the country by all sorts of retail campaigning, and it's probably so. But the prime objective is gaining votes, not wisdom, no matter what they say.

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