IT'S a bit after 1 p.m. on a Friday afternoon in Manchester, N.H. Republican presidential candidate Lamar Alexander is meeting with about 250 students crammed into a double-sized classroom at Memorial High School.
Along a side wall, a few reporters and photographers are recording the event -- including, most importantly, WMUR-TV, New Hampshire's major television station. Behind the former Tennessee governor, an interpreter for the deaf is signing his talk.
It is a typical day this time of quadrennial year for New Hampshire, a time when presidential candidates are as prevalent in the state as taps on maple trees. Their presence highlights both the importance of New Hampshire in electing the next president as well as the one-on-one touch residents get more than in any other state.
A recent day in the life of two GOP contenders -- former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander and Sen. Arlen Specter, both well back in the polls -- tells something about the culture of campaigning Granite State-style, and the messages candidates are conveying.
Mr. Alexander, in suit and tie, introduces himself to the students. He has already raised $6 million of the $20 million he figures he'll need to campaign effectively. But he's not a familiar face yet, he jokes: His red-and-black flannel shirt is better known than he.
The former Tennessee governor launches into his message: ''The next president, the person we elect next year will be sitting in the Oval Office in the White House on the first day of the year 2000.... I think the major purpose of the president will be to help us recapture our confidence in the future.''
The country needs to concentrate on new-job growth, Alexander says, and move as much decisionmaking as possible out of Washington -- especially in education, law enforcement, and welfare. He says Congress should meet six months and spend the rest of the year in districts.
''I'd like to focus on personal responsibility,'' Alexander says. ''The Republican Party tried to talk about personal responsibility in 1992, but we didn't do a very good job of it.... We all know that most of the problems that worry us have to do with the breakdown of the family, the neighborhood, the church, and the school.''
By now the room has become a sauna. The students pepper him with questions, but are always respectful. He says he'd set aside Social Security and balance the rest of the budget, including Medicare, first. He opposes Sen. Richard Lugar's proposal for a national retail sales tax because sales taxes should be a state tool and the tax would be too easy to increase.
A young man asks about abortion. ''I believe abortion is wrong,'' Alexander says. The federal government should stay out of the issue and leave it to the states.
Would he eliminate the Department of Education? Yes, but what isn't turned over to the states should go to other federal agencies. He'd keep the college loan program and university research.
More questions: Alexander would stop the ''free-fall'' in defense spending. He thinks the House GOP crime bill calls for too much federal interference in state and local issues; so does the welfare-reform package. Drugs? The government should do everything it can to limit the supply. But ''you must do something in your own neighborhoods.... The president can't stop bad personal behavior.''
Sitting in a conference room with a reporter, Alexander says his strategy includes having ''the clearest message about the future,'' and exceeding expectations in both New Hampshire and Iowa, ''which for me won't be too hard.''
Only three or four of the GOP candidates will be able to raise enough money to run, he says. ''We'll know the winner by the third week of March.... There may be only two of us that come out of the New Hampshire primary ... it'll be somebody and me.''
Specter in Concord
At 4 p.m. 20 miles north in Concord, the state capital, Senator Specter has arrived an hour late to address 30 members of the New Hampshire Association of Realtors. The weather was stormy, and he had to stop and talk to WMURTV at the Manchester airport.
Specter tells the group he thinks a Pennsylvanian can do well in New England because of similarities in philosophy and approach to issues. To illustrate the difference between a Clinton presidency and a Specter presidency, he holds up two charts.
The first, a familiar Specter prop, shows a diagram of last year's administration health-care plan. ''It's the epitome of complexity,'' he says: The plan would have created 105 new boards and commissions and given new responsibilities to 47 existing agencies.
Chart 2 is his ''postcard'' 10-line, tax-filing form people would use under his 20-percent-flat-tax proposal. He would eliminate federal income taxes on a family of four earning less than $25,000, and include some exemptions. Taxes on capital gains, investment, and dividends would disappear. A flat tax would increase the gross national product by $2 trillion over seven years, he says.
The other issues that concern him are international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. ''In America, we are all at risk,'' says the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Specter says he supports health-care reform and wants to balance the budget by 2002. But he's also concerned about the ascendancy in the party of ''extremists'' like Pat Robertson and candidate Pat Buchanan. He doesn't criticize the Christian Coalition or the religious right: ''I believe that it is very important to have people in public life who have deep religious and moral convictions, and I am one of them.... [But] God doesn't participate in political campaigns.'' This affects a woman's right to choose, which he supports, as do 71 percent of Republicans nationwide.
The realtors, men and women, go around the room; everyone gets to ask Specter a question. He criticizes Clinton's loan-guarantee package for Mexico; says entitlements will have to be cut to balance the budget, except for Social Security; and agrees that there is still too much partisan politics on Capitol Hill.
Specter calls for reform of the CIA and of the tort system. In tax reform, ''I'm trying to dismantle the IRS [Internal Revenue Service]. That's why I'm running.''
Everyone has had his or her say; the senator is late for his next appointment. He talks briefly with a couple of reporters and moves on. It's past 5 p.m. and pouring rain outside.
The New Hampshire primary is 295 days away.