Alexander's problem: not a serious contender

August 20, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Lamar Alexander was correct when he complained that a presidential candidate shouldn't be chosen on the basis of money and family name. But he is mistaken if he believes his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination failed because George W. Bush enjoyed those advantages.

The problem for Mr. Alexander was that he was never able to persuade enough voters -- or, for that matter, Republican party leaders -- to take him seriously. That was the case, moreover, long before the Bush phenomenon developed.

So the operative question is why Mr. Alexander failed to be more persuasive.

On the face of it, he enjoyed impressive credentials. He had been a White House adviser, a successful governor of Tennessee, a university president and the secretary of education.

And heaven knows he was tenacious enough. He began his campaign for the presidency immediately after the 1992 election and never stopped until his withdrawal this week. But he never projected the kind of political authenticity essential to enlist a larger bloc of the electorate.

Mr. Alexander came to the campaign with a reputation as one of those progressive Southern governors of the 1970s who had done so much to reform their state's school systems. Within the party, his most important bona fide was his connection to former Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr.

But in the 1996 campaign he chose to emphasize hard-line conservative positions on social and cultural issues, including a call for abolishing the Department of Education.

Mr. Alexander also suffered a remarkably strong backlash against his trademark red-and-black checked shirts. He had worn such a shirt originally when he walked across Tennessee and presented himself as a populist in his first successful campaign for governor of the state.

But when he wore the same shirt when he set off on his campaign for the White House, the ploy was seen as the clumsiest kind of political symbolism.

He did enjoy a small measure of success in 1996, just enough to cause him and his supporters to play the what-might-have-been game later. He finished third in the New Hampshire primary behind Patrick J. Buchanan and Bob Dole, close enough so fewer than 5,000 votes would have given him second place and perhaps made the ultimate contest for the nomination Buchanan vs. Alexander, a matchup in which he would have been the clear favorite.

Forbes factor

And those votes might have been there in New Hampshire if it had not been for Steve Forbes, whose novelty appeal and lavish spending in the primary gave him a respectable fourth.

As it happened, Mr. Alexander had to drop out, only to begin running again full-speed as soon as Bob Dole's defeat in the general election was tallied up. But the Tennessee Republican could find no market at all the second time around. There seemed to be some kind of pervasive consensus within the Republican Party that he should not be taken seriously.

Once again, he did all the right things on paper. He enlisted important backing, Republican national committeeman Tom Rath in New Hampshire and former Gov. Terry Branstad in Iowa. He spent more time than his rivals in both of the early states.

He hired top-flight professionals to run his operations. He invited Republican voters to barbecues and lobster picnics. And he talked endlessly about education, the issue ranked of greatest concern to most Americans. He toned down the religious fundamentalism.

But no one seemed to be listening. Mr. Alexander essentially never moved in the opinion polls. Survey after survey of the national electorate and of likely voters in Iowa and New Hampshire kept showing him with less than 5 percent of the vote.

The totally predictable result was the collapse of his fund raising, which led in turn to cutbacks in his campaign operation and the rapid atrophy of his organization.

Being forced out this early in the game is, of course, a special frustration for Mr. Alexander. He wanted to match his views and credentials against those of George Bush when most voters might be watching. But these days that takes money.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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