This time around, Alexander skips the gimmicky shirt


WASHINGTON -- Lamar Alexander has put away his red-and-black plaid lumberjack's shirt for a second try at the presidency. In 1996, we are told, it was seen as a gimmick that got in the way of his serious message to Republican primary voters.

Thus, Mr. Alexander is conceding a point others in politics have been making about him for years -- that he has a problem convincing voters that he is authentic and not just an ambitious candidate trying to position himself in the most advantageous way.

In his association with Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. and then-President Gerald Ford in the 1970s and in his two terms as governor of Tennessee in the 1980s, he developed a reputation as a progressive, middle-of-the-road Republican. But when he started running for president the very week after George Bush was defeated in 1992, Mr. Alexander presented himself as a hard-line conservative on social and fiscal issues.

Mr. Alexander adamantly insisted he had changed none of his views to accommodate the growing strength of the religious right within his party. When challenged about what appeared to be moderate positions he had taken in the past, he would reply bluntly that the premises of the questions were wrong. His views had not changed.

But Mr. Alexander never succeeded in persuading those on the far right of his party that he was one of them. And, at the same time, he alienated some Republican moderates who might otherwise have embraced his campaign.

This time he is making a point of spelling out where he stands on a whole list of issues, ranging from taxes to drugs to national defense, that don't have a lot of ideological content. But he is putting his heaviest stress on the fad issue of this campaign cycle, education, where his service as secretary of education in the Bush administration should be a credential, although he is now a critic of the department.

Mr. Alexander is being driven, too, by his belief that he came very close to winning the 1996 nomination. In that campaign, he finished third in the Iowa precinct caucuses and then third, by fewer than 4,000 votes, to Pat Buchanan and Bob Dole in the New Hampshire primary eight days later.

The Tennessee Republican believes that if he had run second in New Hampshire, he would have been seen in subsequent primaries as the mainstream Republican alternative to Mr. Buchanan. And that position, in turn, would have given him the nomination in the end. It is an argument with considerable validity.

It is also reasonable to wonder, however, why he fell short against candidates as obviously flawed as Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Dole proved to be as the year wore on. It was more than just his flannel shirts.

One problem clearly was that the Dole strategists, hearing Mr. Alexander's footsteps late in the New Hampshire campaign, began running negative ads on television that slowed his movement upward in opinion polls. Another factor was the presence of still another alternative with a heavy television buy, publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, who finished fourth. Without Mr. Forbes in his way, Mr. Alexander may have passed Mr. Dole.

But the essential point is that Mr. Alexander was not compelling enough as a candidate to evoke broad and deep support from the Republican rank and file. That failure clearly developed out of the questions about his authenticity.

This time Mr. Alexander faces not only some old faces: Mr. Forbes, Mr. Buchanan and former Vice President Dan Quayle, but also a whole roster of fresh ones -- Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Elizabeth Dole, Sen. John McCain and Rep. John R. Kasich. And even after de facto campaigning for the past three years, Mr. Alexander still is an also-ran in the polls.

But he once again has the services of the formidable Ted Welch to raise his campaign money. And he has established important organizational backing in Iowa with former Gov. Terry Branstad and New Hampshire with Republican national committeeman Tom Rath. There is a lot of history to suggest that candidates making a second try for a nomination do a lot better than those running for the first time.

In the end, however, the key to the future of Mr. Alexander lies in his ability to convince his fellow Republicans that he is really what he claims to be -- an authentic conservative candidate. Getting rid of the flannel shirt is just a first step.

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

Pub Date: 3/12/99

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