Chastened, Cheerful Alexander Tries Again
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 1999; Page A1
NASHVILLE – Four years ago, former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander put on a plaid shirt, declared his candidacy for president and was barely heard from again. Or so it might have seemed to many Americans.
Alexander has a different view of what happened, one that buoyed him through moments of discouragement and frustration these last few years and persuaded him to keep running. As he sees it, he came within a whisker of taking the nomination and would have had President Clinton nervous at the prospect of a Clinton-Alexander match-up. This is how he explains it:
"I came within 3,800 votes of beating Bob Dole in New Hampshire," he said a few days ago days ago at his small office here. "If I'd beaten him there, he [said] he would have dropped out. It would have been Alexander versus [Pat] Buchanan and I think I would have won that."
That would have given him the Republican nomination. As for the general election, he says: "[Former Clinton strategist] Dick Morris's book said I was the one Republican other than Colin Powell that Clinton and [Vice President] Gore didn't want to run against. I persuaded the Democrats of that, but not the Republicans. So I think I did well."
Today Alexander, 58, will officially start again, this time without the trademark plaid shirt, but lacking none of the determination that has made him a perpetual motion machine in pursuit of the White House for the past six years.
He has been a successful and popular two-term governor, a university president and education secretary in the Bush administration, and has the experience from having been around the track once as a presidential candidate. Yet he begins his second campaign in virtually the same place he was four years ago – low in the polls and overshadowed by more glamorous candidates, this time Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Dole's wife, Elizabeth Hanford Dole.
He is not intimidated. "There are a lot of people who talk about running for president," he said. "The media gets interested in people they already know. The race starts in Iowa. There are 2,500 meetings that night. Your goal is to get 35,000 people to those meetings. I've got a year to do it, with [former Iowa governor] Terry Branstad helping me. I can't worry about these other candidates."
Running for president is a grueling, costly, lonely, often humiliating and sometimes exhilarating process. Mostly it is a mystery – a mystery of what propels people, often against great odds, to keep going. Lamar Alexander is a textbook example of the genre, the man determined to get it right. A methodical, focused and fiercely persistent politician with what his former pollster Whit Ayres described as "a quiet, burning intensity to succeed."
"There are moments when he gets discouraged," said Tom Rath, New Hampshire GOP national committeeman and an Alexander adviser. "But he's been through this. He saw this in '95. Then it wasn't the inevitability of Bob Dole. It was Colin Powell and Pete Wilson."
Neither Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, nor Wilson, then the governor of California coming off a reelection victory almost as impressive as Bush's last November, made it to the starting line in the 1996 campaign.
Alexander once told a friend that he had spent his forties being a governor and knew how he would spend his sixties if he doesn't reach the White House. His fifties, he said, would be spent running for president.
"I don't know any other way to do it than to run for it," the candidate explained in an interview. "Every Republican president we've had who's been successful has done exactly what I'm doing. Nixon ran for six years after he was vice president. Reagan ran three times. George Bush ran 11 years. I don't know any other way."
Alexander's strategy this time is the same as last time: finish in the top three in the Iowa caucuses and the top two in the New Hampshire primary and slug it out with whoever else is left.
Bringing on Branstad and Brian Kennedy, a former Iowa GOP chairman as campaign manager, gives him additional weapons for organizing the caucuses. Last week, Alexander recorded his 121st day in Iowa since he started running for president. In both states, he appears better organized and better known than he was four years ago.
Still he suffers from slights by the media or even old political friends. His advisers contend he has never gotten a fair break from Beltway pundits. "If you move from the right to the center, the Beltway class will applaud you for your courage and maturity," said Mike Murphy, Alexander's 1996 media adviser. "If you move from the center to the right, they will despise you as a demagogue and opportunist. Lamar is someone who has been moving steadily right for 15 years and paying a price with the cognoscenti."
More painful, perhaps, was a remark by Michigan Gov. John Engler, who has jumped on the Bush bandwagon. He told the Chattanooga Times and Free Press, "You've got a governor of the '70s versus the governor of the '90s and I think the governor of the '90s will be very much in tune with where the governors are and probably will have overwhelming support."
Asked about that comment, Alexander would say only, "I was a little surprised by that." But he recalled that a young John Engler came to him in the 1980s for advice when he was running for governor the first time. Alexander sees himself as the prototype of the activist Republican governor.
If Alexander's strategy looks the same, the symbols and substance of this campaign may be different. His 1996 run was mostly an extension of the techniques he used to win election as governor (on his second try) at age 38. He wore a plaid shirt and walked across a state (New Hampshire) just as he had done in Tennessee. The 1996 campaign was long on gimmicks and short on message. The plaid shirt, he now says, "overwhelmed whatever I had to say."
This time he hopes his campaign will be more about what he did as governor and why that would make him a good president. Alexander said he decided "I should take off my shirt and put on my suit and show how I led the state and focus on leading the country." His placards now say "Alexander for President," rather than "Lamar!"
Alexander spent a lot of time after 1996 thinking about what went wrong. "I felt like I wasn't well understood," he said. "When I would say, 'I'm from outside Washington' or 'I want to change Washington,' people would say, 'But you are Washington.' And I'd say, 'No, I'm not, I've been in Washington only three or four years,' but they thought I was."
"I'd have my [plaid] shirt on and people would say, 'That's not you.' I'd say, 'Yes, it is.' People thought I was from Washington and just bought the shirt for the presidential campaign. If that's what they thought, that wasn't what I was trying to get across. So what I'm going to do this time is focus my campaign on [the message that] I'm prepared to be president, here's what I will do."
Alexander has retooled that message this year, diminishing talk of shifting power out of Washington – he is not advocating elimination of the Education Department, for example – and focusing on policies he says will put government on the side of "parents raising children."
"Last time I talked about less of government," he says. "I still believe in less of government. I'll be talking more this time about a different kind of government and education."
Alexander said his top priority is "fixing public education." He wants to start with a $2 billion scholarship program that would give 1.5 million children scholarships of $1,500. It could be used at public, private or parochial schools, but Alexander said most of the money will end up in public facilities. On taxes, he wants more help for parents and would triple the value of the child tax deduction. He also favors cutting tax rates 5 percent across the board.
Four years ago Alexander's campaign got swept up in the conservative tide of the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress. Rather than staking out their own agendas, he and other GOP candidates had to tailor their messages to the agenda of House Republicans. This time, turmoil within the party gives candidates like Alexander more freedom to chart their course – and the party's.
"My sense of the Republican Party right now, unlike four years ago, is that it's lacking self-confidence, which comes from not having a good, clear, firm view of where you stand and where you're going. When I was running in 1995, we'd just come off that 1994 year, we had a Contract With America, we had a new Congress that was telling us in exquisite detail what to do and not to do."
Alexander said the party's lack of self-confidence also stems from its failure to adapt to changing times. "We've been good on giving them money back [through tax cuts], we've been good on beating the communists, but we haven't for the last several years nationally seemed to have been in tune with the way people are living their lives," he said.
One night last summer, Alexander was flying across Iowa, having spent a day crisscrossing the state. It was a lovely evening and he had just finished speaking to a GOP picnic in a small town called Lime Springs.
"I'm ready to throw myself into it," he said of the coming campaign, "and if I'm lucky enough to be elected, terrific. If I'm not, I have lots of other things I love to do in life and I'll go do them and I'll be enormously happy. And you'll never see me coming close to running for public office."
But the gleam in his eye told a different story. "I know a lot of it is out of my hands," he said. "But if I can make as much progress this time as I did last time, I'll win."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company