PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- The loneliness of the long-distance runner abates a bit for Lamar Alexander at Yoken's restaurant. Here, Rotarians gather for good works and rhetoric of varying quality.
This day a bell is rung and someone delivers a terse invocation. Next, the group recites the Rotarian credo, which is radically incompatible with the state's great industry of the next 12 months, the presidential primary. (The credo: "The four-way test of things we think, say or do: 1. Is it the truth? 2. Is it fair to all concerned? 3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships? 4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?") Then Mr. Alexander tells them why, next February, this state ought to treat him better than it did three Februarys ago.
The presidency, he says, "can't be inherited and shouldn't be bought." It is hard work and should be held by someone who works hard to win it, not by anyone who relies on a famous name (the names George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole come to mind) or inherited wealth (Steve Forbes). No one running in 2000 will have worked as hard as Mr. Alexander has since 1995. Since the 1996 primary, he has been spurred by a sense of a near miss.
That year his third-place finish in Iowa gave him a surge in New Hampshire, where the Thursday before the election he passed Bob Dole, who was chasing Pat Buchanan. Then Mr. Dole did unto Mr. Alexander what George Bush had done unto Mr. Dole in 1988 -- he aired a barrage of negative ads that went unanswered. Mr. Dole secured second place, and the ability to fight on. Mr. Alexander was on the way out.
However, Mr. Alexander's two third-place finishes immediately bumped him up to 16 percent in California's Field Poll. That is the "slingshot effect" of early achievements in small contests. It explains why Mr. Alexander, when he is asked here, as all candidates are, if he thinks New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary is the finest flower of U.S. democracy, he not only says, yes, but he also says it with unfeigned fervor.
His expectation is that Iowa's caucuses will effectively winnow the Republican field to three, and New Hampshire will send just two on to March 7, when California, New York and eight other states (so far) vote. He has fine organizations in place here and in Iowa.
Mr. Alexander, 58, was Tennessee's governor and Mr. Bush's secretary of education, and his agenda is solid conservative stuff -- tax simplification featuring restoration of the "Reagan rates" (28 percent maximum); raising the child exemption to $8,000; doubling the charitable deduction for those who give more than 5 percent of income; missile defense. The Rotarians murmur approvingly at what he calls his new beatitude: " 'Tis better to repeal than enact." By which he means Congress should pass two-year budgets and devote every second year largely to revising or repealing laws and regulations.
However, his soft upper-South accent seems to accentuate the measured nature of the man and the lack of edge to his politics. Well, say some aides, a nation overdosed on Clintonian excitements might crave a low-voltage candidate. The trouble is, it rarely does. Howard Baker, on whose Senate staff Mr. Alexander worked, was such a candidate in 1980, as was former Sen. Paul Tsongas in 1992 and Sen. Richard Lugar in 1996.
Mr. Alexander's retail politics make sense here, and especially in Iowa, where the chore is to turn out people for caucuses on a February week night. However, he may be more methodical than New Hampshire voters are: Last time, about a quarter of them made up their minds the weekend before the voting.
He has painful history on his side: He has run before and lost. Mr. Reagan sought the nomination prematurely in 1968 and strenuously in 1976. Mr. Bush lost in 1980 and Mr. Dole did in 1988.
Time was, Tennessee rivaled Virginia and Ohio as a nursery of presidents, producing three (Andrew Jackson, James Polk and Andrew Johnson) in 36 years. A Gore-Alexander race would be the first since 1944 (FDR against Tom Dewey) with two nominees from the same state. That is not likely. But, then, perhaps not more unlikely than that both Gov. George W. Bush and Mrs. Dole, the leaders in today's New Hampshire polls, will be as formidable next February as they seem today.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 2/11/99