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  •   Alexander Looks to 2000

    Lamar Alexander holds a baby in this 1995 file photo. Alexander said he would form a presidential exploratory committee for 2000 Friday. (AP)
    By Ceci Connolly
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, January 8, 1999; Page A01

    Lamar Alexander, the former Republican governor of Tennessee who ran for president in 1996 and never really stopped, plans to inch one step closer today to a formal announcement for the 2000 campaign.

    Alexander told The Washington Post yesterday that he plans to file papers today with the Federal Election Commission that would create a presidential exploratory committee.

    On the day the Senate opened the impeachment trial of President Clinton, Alexander made clear his intention to run a character-based campaign that targets Clinton, Vice President Gore and a Washington he said has "embarrassed" the nation with its year-long obsession with the presidential sex scandal.

    "The main thing that's happened in the country is we have done our best, especially this last year in the federal government, to see how low we can go," Alexander said in an interview yesterday. "I'd like to see how high we can go. The country is ready for a campaign to bring out our best."

    Alexander, who has called for Clinton's resignation and has said he would have voted for impeachment, said Gore cannot escape the controversy.

    "It is hard for Vice President Gore to take credit for everything going well and take none of the blame for the national embarrassment that Bill Clinton has caused," Alexander said. "Al Gore might have stayed indoors during his Hawaiian vacation rather than come out and express pride in the president.

    "There is a line between loyalty and being an apologist for unacceptable conduct," Alexander continued. "The vice president will have to defend his position in the year 2000 just as Gerald Ford had to in 1976."

    Alexander is the second potential presidential candidate to take aim at Gore, considered to be the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who also has an exploratory committee, recently attacked Gore for his questionable fund-raising practices in the 1996 campaign.

    "Are you proud when monks and nuns abandon their vows of poverty and pay tens of thousands of dollars to have spiritual communion with the vice president?" McCain said, according to a recent account in the New York Times.

    Mike Murphy, a GOP strategist who is not backing any candidate, said it made sense for Republican contenders to immediately target Gore. "The one thing Republican primary voters have in common is they are totally unsatisfied with Al Gore," he said. "It's good politics to draw a contrast with the leader of the other party, and in this case it's true: If he wants to try to be son of Clinton then he has to carry the negatives as well."

    The exploratory committee means Alexander can raise money for activities such as polling and travel that help him weigh a presidential run. He said he expects to declare his candidacy within the month.

    Alexander, 58, has become something of a master of the money loophole, forming a number of political action committees since the 1996 campaign that have enabled him to campaign in such creative ways as paying for television advertising in a dozen states -- including the early primary states -- that promoted his tax cut plan, and giving out 2,831 lobsters at a picnic in New Hampshire in 1997.

    Alexander, whose full-time occupation for the last six years has been to run for president, spent much of 1998 raising money and campaigning for GOP candidates. In Iowa, with the help of former governor Terry E. Branstad, Alexander targeted 50,000 Republicans who have voted in presidential years, but have not participated in midterm elections, and urged them to vote last Nov. 3.

    Alexander estimates that this year he will raise $15 million to $20 million, aided by Ted Welch, a prodigious former fund-raiser for the Republican National Committee.

    For his 1996 effort, Alexander raised $17.6 million but dropped out in March after placing third in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. The former education secretary in the Bush administration began his first presidential campaign in 1993 and emerged as the strongest alternative to Robert J. Dole. But Alexander could not survive the media attack by Dole in New Hampshire that criticized the Tennessean's personal financial dealings.

    Saying the experience of 1996 makes him a stronger candidate this time around, Alexander -- remembered best for his plaid shirt and piano playing -- said he learned a valuable lesson in 1996: Pick a theme and stick with it. "I have to make absolutely sure I have a clear, focused message about bringing out the best in our country," he said, noting that the message entails pro-family tax policies, better schools and a respect for government.

    The next presidential contest is taking shape unusually early this year, a clear signal that the money quest and front-loaded primary calendar are recasting the nominating process. California, New York and several other large states plan to hold their primaries in March, meaning the presidential nominees will likely be chosen that month.

    In addition to Alexander and McCain, Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.) and former senator Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) have formed exploratory committees. Gore and Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.) skipped that interim step and filed the paperwork to become official candidates for 2000.

    Several other Republicans have hinted they are seriously considering a presidential bid, including outgoing Red Cross President Elizabeth Dole, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich (Ohio). On the Democratic side, Jesse L. Jackson and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) have said they may join the contest.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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