Can Alexander Sing Comeback-Kid Tune?

IT was only a little more than four years ago that the highly regarded Democratic adviser - the late John White - came to a Monitor breakfast and said if his longtime friend, Bill Clinton, won the presidential nomination, it would be a "nightmare" campaign for the Democrats.

Mr. White was referring to the womanizing and draft-dodging accusations being lodged against the young Arkansas governor. He conceded, regretfully, that the Clinton bid for the presidency was stuck in the mud - and not very likely to get out of it.

Actually, it was White who earlier had been highly influential in persuading Mr. Clinton to run. Indeed, it was he who suggested that Clinton's first move toward becoming a nominee was to "meet the Washington press," as he put it, at the Monitor's breakfast. Clinton made that breakfast appearance in September 1991. But then, only a few months later, White told this same group, sorrowfully, that his favorite candidate wasn't going anywhere.

I thought of this at our breakfast with Lamar Alexander the other day. Mr. Alexander's candidacy hasn't gotten off to the good start that Clinton's did in 1991. But neither has the former Tennessee governor and Education Secretary run into the scandals that came close to ending the Clinton campaign in its early stages - after its auspicious beginning.

Alexander has been gaining ground of late. But he lags far behind Bob Dole. The popular opinion from both the press and the political experts is this: It is pretty much all over. Dole has wrapped up the nomination.

But, I keep reminding myself, the race is really just beginning. There's the upcoming Iowa caucus, the New Hampshire primary, and a lot of other important primaries on the horizon. What can happen? Polls that show Dole winning the GOP nomination also show him losing to Clinton by a wide margin. Republicans, of course, want a winner and are dismayed by the thought that Dole may be a loser. How that unsettled feeling translates into the rise of another GOP candidate to the nomination I do not know. But it could happen.

Alexander is an exceedingly attractive candidate. I will confess a little bias toward him, one that got its start at a Gridiron Club's mid-winter banquet in 1991, when Education Secretary Alexander wowed us as a speaker.

He responded to my invitation to speak by asking: "Could I play the piano and sing?" I replied that in more than 100 years of the club's existence, nothing like that had ever happened. But I agreed to give it a try. And it was a boffo performance by a man who once aspired to be a classical pianist. That night, however, he sang a humorous country song, winning a standing ovation and at least a bit of our affection.

He has been playing the piano and singing as he travels the campaign trail. It always goes over extremely well - but not to very large audiences. He remains pretty much an unknown, a fact he bewailed at our breakfast. It seems the news media have been neglecting him.

Alexander might yet be "discovered" by the voters. We forget that, at the outset, Paul Tsongas was the big leader in the 1992 race; Clinton was wallowing in scandal and floundering. But somehow the press encouraged, or at least allowed, Clinton to describe his rather mediocre showing in the New Hampshire primary as the resurgence of the "Comeback Kid," as he labeled himself. From then on, Clinton couldn't be stopped.

All Alexander needs is to look surprisingly good in the upcoming race to "do a Clinton." He can't call himself the "Comeback Kid." But he certainly could find some snappy title from a country song that would vividly depict his emergence from the pack.

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