Flannel Tortoise Scampers After the Hares


THINK about it. Would you trust a man who wears flannel in August to solve the crisis in Bosnia or pull the country out of recession?

Lamar Alexander, a Cabinet member in the Bush administration who wants to be president, bets voters will buy that kind of down-home appeal.

Walking down a sun-blistered stretch of New Hampshire highway in his favorite cotton chamois, Mr. Alexander calls himself "just a red-and-black checkered tortoise running against all those blue-suited hares from Washington."

It may be too early to refer to the pack of Republican contenders as "also rans," but with Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas galloping ahead in the polls, it's easy to dismiss his rivals. As a longtime leader in the Senate who has been down the presidential campaign trail twice before, Mr. Dole enjoys name recognition nationwide.

But the New Hampshire primary is six months away, and plenty could change. Dole faces tough battles this fall when Congress and the White House clash over the budget. National surveys show the public is still dissatisfied with both major political parties. Dole might not benefit from a standoff that shuts down the government.

Alexander's quest offers a look at how those mired in single digits in the polls try to build support in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

The candidate believes winning the GOP nomination is simply a matter of spreading his name and message - often on foot.

Thus, using a strategy that put him in the Tennessee statehouse as governor in 1978, he is driving across Iowa, walking across New Hampshire, and running television ads in both states - always in red-and-black flannel, always folksy.

And in two states where the people expect the candidates to come out and meet them, such retail politicking just might work.

If endorsements are any index, some six state representatives and city aldermen have recently converted to Alexander's campaign from rival camps.

"Dole is not catching fire," says Hugh Gregg, former Republican governor of New Hampshire. "There is not great feeling from the guy in the street about this thing."

Out in Iowa, Valerie Armstrong of the Iowa Caucuses Project, an independent political organization, adds: "Dole has broad support, but Iowans have no qualms about turning out someone who has been in office a long time. Alexander is visible."

On a seven-mile jaunt eastward out of Nashua, Alexander stops his small entourage of placard-waving volunteers to talk with two women. "If you were talking with President Clinton right now, what would you tell him?" he asks.

"I'd tell him to help the poor," one woman responds. "Do something about lower- and middle-class wages."

"Jobs," Alexander responds, packaging her concerns into one of his core themes.

A personable though uncharismatic man who says he would rather be playing piano with a Tennessee bluegrass band than cavorting with fellow politicians, Alexander spreads a simple message: jobs, less federal government, and personal responsibility.

The presidency, he says, should be a pulpit from which to push fewer policies but more values, such as community, family, church, and school.

Posing as a Washington outsider

Alexander calls himself a Washington outsider despite having interned for Robert Kennedy's Justice Department and worked for Presidents Nixon and Bush.

And though many of his proposals have champions, especially among the large class of Republican freshman in the House of Representatives, the former governor and education secretary claims to be the original federalist in the pack of GOP hopefuls.

To shrink government, he would eliminate the Department of Education. To prepare it for the next century, he would cut congressional salaries, reduce the length of the legislative session, and allow members to hold outside jobs.

He would transfer all Medicaid funding to the federal level, lifting that burden from the states so they can fully fund and control their own welfare programs.

He thinks teachers should be paid more, schools should be in session year round, and parents should be given money so they can choose where to send their children to learn.

But Alexander stresses jobs above everything else. He disagrees with President Clinton that the problem facing the middle class is stagnant wages. The problem, he says, is a lack of quality jobs, and the way to solve it is by creating the right conditions for business to thrive.

Uncle Sam's role

"Government doesn't create jobs, but the environment for jobs," he says, keeping up a steady 3 m.p.h gait. This means building infrastructure and telecommunications, for example.

As governor, Alexander traveled to Japan 13 times to pursue business contacts. Such foreign-policy maneuverings might have seemed odd for the head of a rural, poor state, but the effort brought in a raft of Japanese businesses, including an auto plant.

At the end of the day's trek, Alexander sips Gatorade, makes small talk with locals, and expresses optimism.

A meticulous planner, he'll finish his walk to the New Hampshire coast right around primary day in February. Between now and then, there'll be lots of people to greet and plenty of flannel to keep him warm when fall turns chilly.

And somewhere along the road, he figures he'll catch up to Mr. Dole. After all, 24 US senators have run for the White House since 1976, but three of the four presidents were once governors.

"You can have a chief executive [himself] or a chief legislator [Dole]," he says. "I think that's a fine choice for the American people."

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