Lamar Alexander looks for inspiration to yesteryear's Gary Hart

January 12, 1996|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- There is an obvious analogy between the Republican primary campaign here this year and the Democratic contest in 1984. If it is carried to the extreme -- a very big ''if'' -- we could be looking at another upset when the votes are counted February 20.

At this stage 12 years ago, the Democrats had in former Vice President Walter F. Mondale an established front-runner with broad support from the party leaders much like that enjoyed today among Republicans by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. Like Mr. Dole today, Mr. Mondale led all the opinion polls by wide margins.

In 1984 there was also a prominent Washington figure, Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, who seemed to be falling far short of expectations -- just as Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas appears to be at this stage TC this time.

And the Democrats had in Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado another candidate who had built an imposing organization in New Hampshire but had yet to make a strong impression on the voters, at least as measured by those same polls. Former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee seems to be playing that role today.

The result in 1984 was one of the most surprising turnarounds in the history of New Hampshire primaries. After showing well in debates and running second -- a distant second -- to Mr. Mondale in Iowa, Senator Hart caught fire here and overtook the front-runner in the final eight days of the campaign.

In the end, Mr. Mondale won the Democratic nomination that year. But that happened largely because he had the floor of money and support to sustain him until Mr. Hart made mistakes under the pressures he faced once he leaped to the head of the pack. Mr. Dole has similar resources of money and commitments that could keep him in the campaign even if he lost here.

The limits of analogy

There are limits to the analogy. For one thing, this year's primary and caucus voters are Republicans, not Democrats -- perhaps more inclined to reward those who have put themselves in line for the prize.

The situation on the ground here is quite different, too. Perhaps the most striking difference is the role being played by publisher Steve Forbes, who has spent $7 million-plus of his own money saturating the atmosphere with television commercials and attracting 10 to 12 percent of the vote.

By most informed estimates here, the support for Mr. Forbes, tentative though it may be, is coming largely from Republicans who are unwilling to back a leading Washington figure like Senator Dole and might be expected to find Mr. Alexander's ''outsider'' message attractive.

Nor is there any assurance the Republican candidates will continue to play the roles assigned to them by the analogy. Although Senator Gramm has yet to show any strength here, he is a tenacious politician with the resources to compete effectively. And his strong anti-tax message is one that ordinarily does well here.

Mr. Alexander is credited with having an organization on the ground here second only to Senator Dole's. But he has not yet made a strong impression on the voters as Mr. Hart did in a debate at Dartmouth College in mid-January of 1984. Nor is there any reason to believe now that he necessarily will come out of the Iowa caucuses with the kind of bump Mr. Hart enjoyed in 1984.

Mr. Alexander's strategists recognize the need to make some kind of breakthrough. As Thomas Rath, a ringwise Concord attorney advising the Tennessee Republican, put it, ''We've got to be the one who's hot, the story here.''

Mr. Alexander's position is somewhat stronger than Mr. Hart's at the same time 12 years ago. He has enough money to run a full schedule of television advertising from now through primary day. His organizers now claim committees in more than 200 of the 301 voting precincts in the state, and he is second only to Senator Dole in support among such activists as members of the state legislature.

Whether he has the message to win is an open question. Senator Hart ran as a candidate of generational change within his party. Mr. Alexander is presenting himself as the outsider in the field, a distinction also claimed by Mr. Forbes and commentator Pat Buchanan, and arguing that he, not Senator Dole, can defeat President Clinton in November. Although he is not raising directly the question of Mr. Dole's age -- he is 72 -- the implication of Mr. Alexander's case is that the Senate leader is entitled to respect and a gold watch but not the presidential nomination.

At this point, Mr. Alexander is still lagging far behind. But he has only to look back to 1984 to know he is still very much alive.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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