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Memphis Flyer The Hopeful

Lamar Alexander seeks the kindness of strangers -- plus a little help from his friends

By Jackson Baker

JUNE 7, 1999:  If illustrations were used to point up well-worn proverbs the way they are alongside certain dictionary words, then Lamar Alexander's blunt, earnest-looking features would be used to illustrate the phrase: "Hope springs eternal."

Only, in 1999, as against four years earlier, it ain't springing for as much.

In 1995, after announcing his presidential candidacy in his hometown of Maryville, Alexander -- accompanied by several staff members and a sizeable press pack -- boarded a chartered turbo-jet and began an airborne tour that took him from Tennessee to New Hampshire to multiple stops in Iowa to Texas to Florida and back to Tennessee. All this in about five days.

That was his big-spender campaign; his latest quest for the presidency, launched earlier this year in Nashville, is more modest in scope and more penurious in practice.

"I've learned a few things the second time around. One of them is that I'm not spending as much money on big airplanes," the two-term former Tennessee governor ruminated Tuesday night, as he sat in a back den of the East Memphis home of Dean and Kristi Jernigan, waiting for the onset of a $1,000-a-head fund-raiser which he hoped -- perhaps optimistically -- would net him $200,000.

"There are two ways to raise money," the candidate continued, and one of them is to save money. If you don't spend any you don't have to raise it."

So, just like your garden-variety grad student or hard-pressed commercial traveler, Alexander, as often as possible, uses bargain-basement Southwest Airlines to get around as he pursues what most observers regard as an impossible dream -- first, to win the Republican nomination for the presidency at a time when the national polls show him floundering in the low single digits and then to win the general election --presumably against his fellow Tennessean, Vice President Al Gore.

"My aim is to raise as much as I can in June, starting with this event in Memphis, and spend as much of July as possible in Iowa, just going from town to town," Alexander said. He pointed out that he is not without advantages in that Midwestern caucus state, first in the nation to cast a vote for the presidency.

Former Governor Terry Branstad is the Tennessean's state chairman, and he's been "in every one of the 99 counties each year" for the last 16 years, Alexander said. "He and I are trying to organize every one of the 2100 precincts in Iowa." Indeed, the candidate spent two hours on the telephone to Iowa Tuesday during his brief Memphis stay.

"One thing I found out is that 86 of the 99 counties have Alexander chairmen now," said the candidate proudly.

With all this organization and nitty-gritty support, why is it that the polls show such little momentum for him (in Iowa and elsewhere), and why do pundits like The Washington Post's Richard Cohen (a frequent contributor to the Flyer) compare him to the late Harold Stassen, a perennial candidate who ran for president every four years for almost three decades?

"Yeah, I've seen that. Cohen needs to work on his history. This is just my second time," Alexander said. "The only Republican president to just run one time and win was Eisenhower. Ronald Reagan ran two and a half times. George Bush ran for eleven years, and Bob Dole ran three times."

As for his low standing in the polls, Alexander is not discouraged. "With three weeks to go before New Hampshire in 1996, I was at 1 percent -- that's 1 percent -- in the polls nationally. It was so bad that the Dole people put up a big sign saying 'Lamar! 1 percent,' making fun of me."

Yet on primary eve in New Hampshire in February 1996 Alexander came off a strong third-place showing in Iowa to challenge Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan for the lead. "Dole's people took a poll on Thursday night before the Tuesday of the election, and they found out I was beating him. They pulled all his regular advertising and replaced it with negative ads about me."

The resulting barrage of bash-Lamar commercials was enough to knock the Tennessean down to third place in the GOP primary voting. Final results: Buchanan, 27 percent; Dole, 26 percent; Alexander, 23 percent.

Alexander recently ran into Dick Morris, the erstwhile adviser to President Clinton (as, for that matter, to Tennessee's own Don Sundquist in the gubernatorial campaign of 1994). The two were appearing on successive Fox TV News segments, and, during a commercial break, says Alexander, Morris told him, "You know, you were to Clinton-Gore what inflation is to [Fed chairman] Alan Greenspan. They woke up every night worrying about you."

If so, then the two worthies atop the Democrats' national ticket got to sleep peacefully after New Hampshire. Dole's second-place showing there kept him in the running -- "He has said he would have dropped out if he'd finished behind me," Alexander maintains -- and the former Senate Republican leader gained the nomination and then ran a lackluster, losing campaign against Clinton.

But Alexander isn't looking backward. His eyes are on the early voting in Iowa and New Hampshire next year. He is well aware that virtually every Republican governor has endorsed the current frontrunner for the GOP nomination, Texas governor George W. Bush, son of the former president.

And that Bush has a commanding double-digit lead in the polls. And that Bush has so far managed to raise what various analysts estimate to be upwards of $10 million so far (roughly the total amount raised by Alexander in the '95-'96 cycle and far above the $2-plus million Alexander is estimated to have raised so far in this cycle). And that the Texan -- who can afford a chartered campaign airplane -- is just now in the middle of a big campaign swing through several states.

Even so, Alexander believes there's a good chance that Bush will fade (as early presidential frontrunners like former Maine senator Edmund Muskie, among Democrats, and former Michigan governor George Romney, among Republicans, have in the past). "I think the race will come down to Governor Bush and myself," Alexander pronounced confidently Tuesday night.

His game plan is to finish among the top three in Iowa on February 7th next year, go on to finish in the top two in New Hampshire later that month ("People tend to make up their minds in the last week"), and then, Alexander says hopefully," the money will roll in."

Meanwhile, he has a chance of winning the "expectations" game against Bush. Referring to the Texan's huge financial and polling lead so far, Alexander said wryly, "I've got him right where I want him."

There is a realistic streak to his Pollyannaism, however, and Alexander knows that there's a down side to the fact that virtually no one gives his own candidacy a chance. "It hurts fund-raising," he admits. "From the point of view of raising money, nothing beats everybody thinking you're a sure thing."

If he can get into the New Year with something in the neighborhood of $3 to $4 million, Alexander believes he has a chance of making his game plan work. If he should somehow get the nomination, he believes the decision by Gore, the likely Democratic nominee, to focus on education as a major campaign theme, is a great boon to himself, a former U.S. Secretary of Education who, as Tennessee governor before that, initiated various educational improvements.

"He [Gore] has done the country a favor by raising the issue. He's got some good ideas, but he thinks Washington knows better than local people. I'm the other way around." (When Gore made a major policy speech on education in Iowa two weeks ago, flyers advertising Alexander's availability to respond were made available to the reporters traveling with the vice president; those who called got a chance to hear the former Tennessee governor criticize the vice president for proposing what Alexander termed a "national school board.")

But to get into a playoff situation against Gore, Alexander has to first pull off a miracle against the crowded Republican field headed by Governor Bush. There were several true believers in the politically diversified GOP crowd at the Jernigans' Tuesday night -- notably the host himself.

"I think Bush is like Clinton was in 1992. He hopes to be the strong man in a weak field. But I think Lamar will surprise him by running hard early on," said Dean Jernigan. Another optimist was District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, a co-host for the fund-raiser who noted that George magazine had recently interviewed him and others for a forthcoming feature on Alexander.

In 1995 alone, Alexander made four fund-raising visits to the Memphis area and netted something like a million dollars. He isn't nearly so ambitious this time around. He acknowledges, more or less, that he'd be happy to get half that.

One attendee Tuesday night looked around the group on hand, which included various local officials and businesspeople and a number of longtime Alexander loyalists. "Four years ago," he said, "you could twist a lot of arms. The ones who are here tonight, though, are more or less here through the goodness of their hearts."

In the final analysis, of course, Lamar Alexander's long-shot hopes will be dependent not on the home folks of Tennessee, but -- like Tennessee Williams' Blanche Dubois -- on the kindness of strangers, the ones in Iowa and New Hampshire.

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