NASHVILLE -- Lamar Alexander interrupted the nation's longest-running presidential campaign -- his own -- for a special announcement yesterday: He's once again seeking the Republican nomination.
As he formally joined a Republican field that could swell to 11 candidates, the road warrior from Tennessee said he'd make reform of the nation's public education system the focus of his second White House try.
"I will be a president on the side of parents raising children," the former governor told several hundred supporters in Nashville.
While serving as Secretary of Education in the Bush administration, Alexander called for the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education, a position he carried into his 1996 campaign.
Now, he's abandoned that position. Instead, he wants to distribute federal education funds -- in the form of $1,500 scholarships -- so that parents can decide which public or private elementary and secondary schools their children should attend.
To further aid families, he'd triple the tax deduction for each child to $8,000, end the so-called marriage penalty and create a new branch of the armed services to battle the flow of illegal drugs into the United States. He also is calling for lower taxes on the wealthiest Americans, more spending for missile defense and creation of private investment accounts to supplement Social Security.
A tenacious but low-key campaigner sometimes described as dull, Alexander, 58, hopes voters may be looking for a little less dazzle and flash after eight years of Bill Clinton.
He sternly assailed Clinton, whom he called "the Wizard," and fellow Tennessean Al Gore, "his faithful assistant," for allowing schools to deteriorate, taxes to rise and "standards of right and wrong" to reach a new low during their administration.
"This election will be about restoring respect for the presidency," he said before jetting off to Washington, D.C., Iowa, New Hampshire and California.
"If we are going to bring out the best in America, we will need a president who talks straight and who will listen [and] who respects the office and respects those who put him in that office."
An also-ran in the 1996 nomination chase, he withdrew after third-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. But before that year was out, he hit the road again.
"I can assure you, if I could find an easier way to do it, I would do it," said Alexander, who's been campaigning almost continuously for more than six years.
A lawyer whose political connections made him a millionaire investor, he is putting greater emphasis on ideas this time around. In 1996, his candidacy was often seen as more gimmicky than genuine.
He became known for such attention-getting tactics as walking across New Hampshire, playing the piano at campaign stops and, most famously, wearing a red-and-black plaid lumberjack's shirt to events, including his announcement speech in his hometown of Maryville, Tenn.
In contrast, he wore a black business suit at yesterday's state Capitol ceremony, which was designed to highlight his accomplishments during two terms as governor in the late 1970s and 1980s and make him look more presidential.
He was joined by the two Republican governors who have endorsed his candidacy, Don Sundquist from his home state and Mike Huckabee of neighboring Arkansas. His most important backer, though, is Terry E. Branstad, former governor of Iowa, where party caucuses will be the first key test of the 2000 race.
"If we can pull off a big upset victory over George [W.] Bush in Iowa, it's a whole new ballgame," said Branstad, the campaign's national chairman.
Since 1993, Alexander has spent 121 campaign days in Iowa, more than one-third of them since the 1996 election.
Despite his years as a Republican office holder and candidate, Alexander starts far down in the early polls. Moreover, he faces in Bush, the Texas governor, a younger, more charismatic and better financed version of himself.
Though Bush has been in elective office less than five years, he has attracted the support of a majority of the 31 GOP governors, who see him as the party's best bet for regaining the presidency.
At the same time, however, few voters outside Texas have heard Bush speak, know where he stands or know what he has accomplished as governor.
Alexander likes to point out that no Republican since Dwight Eisenhower has pulled off what Bush is attempting to do: win the presidency on the first try.
"I remember President John Connally, President Mario Cuomo, President John Glenn and President George Romney," Alexander said in an interview, reeling off the names of other politicians over the past three decades who created huge excitement early on, then failed to meet expectations once the voting began.
Not long ago, Alexander took a swipe at Bush, criticizing the Texan's description of himself as a "compassionate conservative."