All eyes on New Hampshire Nasty GOP contest: Alexander challenging Dole and Buchanan as the mud flies.

Campaign 1996

February 17, 1996

DEMOCRATS NOW possess material for a vile and vicious TV ad. They need only to excerpt choice clips from the New Hampshire primary debate in which would-be Republican presidents snipe and snap at one another.

It is enough to make GOP aficiondos look back to the 1952 and 1964 primaries. Then the Granite State was won by candidates who were literally an ocean away -- Dwight Eisenhower in Europe, Henry Cabot Lodge in Vietnam.

Unluckily for the party, all belligerents were on the scene for Thursday night's debacle. Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana spoke truth when he said the campaign was so demeaning that "Americans are wondering what kind of party we have and what kind of people aspire to the presidency." But he is only an asterisk and therefore unworthy of major-contender mudballs.

With tracking polls putting Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan and Lamar Alexander too close to call, Mr. Alexander is attracting the kind of attention -- some welcome, some not -- that has eluded him until now. Former governor of Tennessee, secretary of education in ++ the Bush cabinet, a self-styled capitalist whose capital gains make Hillary Clinton look penny ante, Mr. Alexander nevertheless exudes an everyman mein that might, just might, appeal to the quirky individualism in the New Hampshire soul.

He is, by current Republican standards, a "moderate," which puts him somewhat to the left of Senator Dole and off the charts from that far-right populist, Mr. Buchanan. A fellow who dropped attack ads even before they started to turn off the voters, Mr. Alexander finished a strong third in the Iowa caucuses.

Mr. Alexander touts himself as the only Republican who can beat President Clinton. He brings to the table a highly successful record as the governor of a more important Southern state than Arkansas. He campaigns for cuts in capital gains taxes, school choice and vouchers, turning the entire federal welfare program over to the states and setting up a new branch of the armed forces to seal the nation's borders. He is enough of a free-trading internationalist to distance himself from the protectionism and isolationism of the Buchanan campaign. And as he never ceases to remind voters, he is a generation younger than 72-year-old Bob Dole.

So will Lamar Alexander be a 1996 Henry Cabot Lodge, a late-comer who grabs the Granite? Don't count on it, but don't not count on it.

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