Mild-Mannered Alexander Wants to Rabbit-Punch D.C.

AFTER more than 8,000 miles of traversing the country in his red Ford Explorer, talking and listening, after nearly two years running monthly ''Republican Neighborhood Meetings'' by satellite hookup, Lamar Alexander is ready.

A mild Tennessee Republican with a relaxed manner and some radical notions, a Brooks Brothers resume and a flannel-shirt point of view, Mr. Alexander formally entered the 1996 presidential contest on Feb. 28.

He is not yet well-known nationally, but his experience and meticulous groundwork put Alexander by himself in a second tier of Republican candidates behind front-runners Bob Dole and Phil Gramm.

The field also became a little clearer for him on Feb. 27 when Massachusetts Gov. William Weld ended speculation that he might run for the GOP nomination.

The next major question for the Alexander campaign is whether California Gov. Pete Wilson moves into or out of the race.

The GOP field is already winnowed to a hardy group of the well-equipped and prepared. Senators Dole of Kansas and Gramm of Texas are each running from the Senate. Alexander is the former governor in the race. Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, and Dick Cheney -- some of the biggest potential players -- have all dropped out in recent weeks.

ALEXANDER would appear to be the persona of moderation. An east Tennessee, small-town Republican, the son of a high-school principal, he became a popular two-term governor, president of the University of Tennessee, and secretary of education under President Bush.

He was educated at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and New York University Law School, and worked in the congressional relations office of the Nixon White House. His temperament is markedly at odds with that of the intense, hard-charging people who become major presidential contenders, however, according to those who know him.

''Lamar is so low-key,'' says one Republican strategist, ''whatever propels him is a lot less obvious and external than with most guys at this level.''

But his message contrasts with his demeanor. He proposes to set about dismantling chunks of the federal government in what he calls ''arrogant Washington.'' He would terminate the Education Department that he used to run. He would cut the pay of Congress members in half and send them home after six months each year. He would send all welfare and most job-training, law-enforcement, and Medicaid programs out to the states to run.

This anti-Washington stance comes from Alexander's experience as a governor and Cabinet member, says Stephen Danzansky, Alexander's former chief of staff at the Education Department. ''He's faced the bureaucracy, faced Washington, faced Congress, and said, 'These guys need something else to do.' ''

He has warned his fellow Republicans now running the House and Senate against simply replacing Democratic arrogance and micromanagement from Washington with a Republican version, he says.

Alexander would rather see Washington give states more latitude in welfare and crime-fighting than have Congress pass tough new GOP-style laws redesigning welfare and toughening punishments. This makes Alexander's platform one of process more than content. He does not talk about what welfare ought to look like, but about who ought to decide.

''He is truly part of the bomb- throwers at this point,'' says Vince Breglio, a GOP pollster. But Alexander may have what Mr. Breglio calls a ''messenger problem.'' He is perceived as ''more of a bureaucratic player'' in his career than ideological conservatives such as Gramm. After all, Alexander did not call for abolishing the Education Department when he ran it.

Some other Republicans doubt that Alexander's anti-Congress message can win him the GOP nomination now that Congress is Republican. Others argue that the last election ratified his message.

Mr. Danzansky describes Alexander as someone who seldom demands the spotlight and does not mind surrounding himself with strong people. He spends a lot of time listening and learning, as he did last summer on his drive around the country, and developing a plan. He is then extremely focused and disciplined about it.

No one has accused Alexander of having charisma. But some Republicans contrast his nice-guy manner to Gramm and Dole, noting that Iowa and New Hampshire -- which lead off the nomination race -- are forums where nice guys often finish first.

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