Thoughtful men going nowhere Well-qualified: Lamar Alexander and Sen. Richard G. Lugar are two of the most qualified men running for the GOP nomination. Yet they have failed to ignite the voters in a campaign in which the key ingredient is money.

Sun Journal

February 10, 1996|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DES MOINES, Iowa -- By any measure, Lamar Alexander and Richard G. Lugar are among the most capable, thoughtful -- and likable -- public figures in America. Mr. Alexander served two exemplary terms as Tennessee governor; the highly respected Senator Lugar is a leading expert on foreign policy.

And yet, their presidential campaigns have been largely ignored. With only two days to go until the first major test of the 1996 campaign, Monday's Iowa caucuses, they're running fifth and sixth in the polls, far behind the leaders.

Both men cling, almost fatalistically, to the hope that, somehow, they'll get hot. Mr. Alexander, in particular, has begun to move here in Iowa, where he has a shot at finishing third. But they also know that time is short and the odds are against them. Indeed, it would be surprising if both of their candidacies were alive a month from now, on the eve of the March 5 primaries in Maryland and six other states.

What happened? Does their apparent lack of progress speak to their shortcomings as candidates? Or does it reveal a flaw in the nomination process -- that what matters isn't a candidate's qualifications but whether he has a personal fortune to finance his campaign or possesses the sort of celebrity that can command attention?

Mr. Alexander, who has been running for the better part of three years, began with an edge. He's an out-of-office politician (though not out-of-work: He continued to draw a $295,000 salary from the law firm of his mentor, former Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr.; last month, he formally took a leave of absence).

His biggest problem has been finding a way to emerge out of a multi-candidate field.

He has tried one gimmick after another: He has walked across New Hampshire, the first primary state. He has showed off his piano artistry at campaign events. And there's the ubiquitous red-and-black plaid shirt, an emblem of his devotion to the old-fashioned virtue of hard work.

Mr. Alexander, a political moderate, has aligned himself with conservative thinkers who see the need to shift power out of Washington and back to families, local governments, religious and civic institutions -- and tear down much of the welfare state at the federal level.

To that end, Mr. Alexander cast himself as the "outsider" in the Republican race. He tried to play on the public's anti-Washington mood by calling for radical reform of Congress. "Cut their pay and send them home," he demanded, urging the creation of a part-time citizen legislature. The Republican takeover of Congress deflated that notion, though, and he no longer stresses it.

He proposes abolishing the Education Department. That sounds strange coming from one who once headed that very department (in the Bush administration) and successfully lobbied Congress to raise its budget.

"I think Republicans are looking for -- I mean, I really don't just say this; I really believe it -- I think they're looking for new leadership from the real world," Mr. Alexander says. "From outside Washington is what that means."

Or perhaps from outside politics altogether. The stunning political debut of Steve Forbes seems to have redefined what it ** means to be an outsider.

Should Mr. Alexander's candidacy fail, it may be because he never sharpened his message sufficiently, or because he was a career politician trying to be something he was not -- an outsider -- and voters saw through this.

Mr. Alexander says he's sincere. "I think I have been myself. I hope I've been myself. I write my own speeches. I say what I believe. I've tried to be honest to myself."

Then there is Mr. Lugar's campaign. Its gimmick is no gimmicks, and it is, if anything, working worse than Mr. Alexander's approach.

Mr. Lugar, whose name has been on the short list of presidential or vice-presidential possibilities for years, gambled that voters, fed up with the sort of government that the politics of charisma has produced, would turn to dull and serious as an antidote.

He seems to have been wrong, and his failure to gain attention appears to prove the unimportance of being earnest.

"I've been accused of being low-key and underplayed and uncharismatic and all this," he says in an interview. "But, on the other hand, people who overplay and are very charismatic are not necessarily very unifying."

Mr. Lugar says he got into the race for one reason: "I felt, as I looked at the field, that I was better qualified, and furthermore that none of the above had the skills that I thought were essential to handle the defense of this country and its foreign policy."

His slogan -- "Everything a president should be" -- reflects that notion. And it's true that, on paper, few appear better suited for the job. He grappled successfully with urban ills as a big-city mayor (Indianapolis). He essentially ran U.S. foreign policy for part of the Reagan years, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He's got the gravitas of a chief executive and a spotless personal reputation.

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