Lamar Alexander, real guy His recurring theme: He's best of the GOP, best against Clinton

Campaign 1996

February 15, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MILFORD, N.H. -- He wore his trademark red-and-black plaid and played the piano to prove he's a real guy. And then Lamar Alexander introduced the new chairman of his presidential campaign, the values guru William Bennett, to prove that the candidate is a real conservative Republican.

Plowing through the falling snow, enveloped in the kind of media throng he's always dreamed of, Mr. Alexander called Mr. Bennett, a former education secretary and best-selling author, "America's conservative conscience."

Like a conservative Good Housekeeping seal of approval, the endorsement gave another boost to Mr. Alexander, who is on a roll since nabbing the bronze in Iowa's caucuses Monday night.

With Phil Gramm out of the race and some of the wind out of Steve Forbes' million-dollar sails, Mr. Alexander, a 55-year-old former two-term Tennessee governor, is trying to position himself as the only true challenger to the front-running Bob Dole, the only real economic and social conservative, the only true outsider to Mr. Dole's Mr. Insiderism.

Most important, he is trying to convince voters that he is the one Republican who can beat Bill Clinton -- that he is conservative, but not, he says, as divisive as Pat Buchanan; experienced, but not as old and spent as he would have you believe of 72-year-old Bob Dole.

Walking though a square in this typically quaint small town in lower New Hampshire yesterday, an upbeat Mr. Alexander promoted himself as a candidate of "new ideas, the future, a conservative vision for the future."

Of those he sees as his chief rivals, he said: "Pat Buchanan has wrong ideas, Bob Dole doesn't have very many ideas, I have new ideas. And I'm hoping to be the first president of the next century."

Yesterday, Mr. Dole took issue with Mr. Alexander's claim of being the "real conservative." "Alexander's a liberal," Mr. Dole said. "I'm mainstream conservative, and Pat's somewhere out there on the edge."

Polls suggest that Mr. Alexander, buoyed by his third-place finish in Iowa behind Mr. Dole and Mr. Buchanan, may be making some headway here. A nightly tracking poll by the American Research Group shows him still behind Mr. Dole and Mr. Buchanan, but inching ahead of Mr. Forbes who, until several days ago, was coming on strong in this state.

'Man for the moment'

Voters such as Robert Irion, a 69-year-old insurance broker, offer evidence that Mr. Alexander's message is getting through. "Too old," Mr. Irion says of his second choice, Mr. Dole. "Alexander is the man for the moment. I like Buchanan. But I think he's a little too far to the right. We're Christian conservatives, but we think he's a little too extreme."

Populist lumberjack shirt notwithstanding, the "outsider" label may be a harder sell for Mr. Alexander, who was education secretary in the Bush administration and is worth more than $3 million.

He stresses that he is from "the real world," and not Washington. But at a news conference yesterday, he ignored a reporter's question of whether he knew the price of a gallon of milk and a dozen eggs, a query that has recently become a litmus test of one's connection to the real world. (The question tripped up Democrat Ron Wyden in his recent successful Senate campaign in Oregon but was nailed by Mr. Forbes last fall.)

After the news conference, Mr. Alexander grabbed an aide and said: "I need to know the price of a gallon of milk and a dozen eggs -- now. I need to know right now."

The Dole campaign was quick to jump on the exchange, issuing a press release that proclaimed, "Alexander Fails the Grocery Test."

In an interview with the Associated Press, Mr. Alexander said: "I confess I was stumped. It was like last week in Iowa, when someone asked me what my UFO policy would be. I haven't eaten eggs for years, and I don't know what milk costs in New Hampshire."

Mr. Alexander's background alternates between stints in Washington and in "the real world," his home state of Tennessee. Before becoming governor in 1979 -- taking office the same day as Bill Clinton in Arkansas -- Mr. Alexander was an aide to Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. and a congressional lobbyist in the Nixon White House.

After two terms as governor, he became president of the University of Tennessee and was named education secretary in 1991.

Devolution of power

Although his manner is sunny, nonthreatening, even bland in a sitcom dad sort of way, some of his positions are highly unconventional. They revolve around a theme of "devolution" of power and money out of Washington and to the states and communities.

At the top is a plan to replace the federal welfare system and replace it with neighborhood charity foundations. He also favors abolishing his old Department of Education, saying it intrudes on decision-making by parents and teachers, and giving parents more choice in education.

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