Alexander Begins Run on Fresh Foot
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 1999; Page A6
NASHVILLE, March 9 -- Lamar Alexander, a failed presidential candidate from 1996, formally launched his second bid for the White House today in the old Supreme Court Chamber of the Tennessee state Capitol, and embarked on a journey to spread his message on local control of schools, tax cuts and a strengthened military.
Gone this time will be the gimmicks -- the red and black flannel shirt, the walk across New Hampshire -- that in 1996 often seemed to overshadow his message. This campaign will be a far more traditional affair for the former two-term Tennessee governor and Bush administration secretary of education.
Dressed conservatively in a steel-gray suit, white shirt and maroon power tie, Alexander, 58, announced a campaign many supporters have long anticipated.
"I am here this morning to declare that I will be a candidate for the president of the United States because I am ready to help our country face the challenges of a new century and to make the right choices," he said, as 200 or so supporters cheered him on. Alexander declared that "this election will be about the character of the nation and its institutions. This election will be about restoring respect for the presidency."
Alexander became the third Republican -- after New Hampshire Sen. Robert C. Smith and television commentator Patrick J. Buchanan -- to officially announce a presidential campaign. Others, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, former vice president Dan Quayle, conservative activist Gary Bauer, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Ohio Rep. John R. Kasich, have taken the initial step of announcing exploratory committees. Former Red Cross president Elizabeth Hanford Dole is expected to announce an exploratory committee today in Iowa. And publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes is expected to make an announcement later this month.
Political strategists say Alexander's strengths are his ability to raise money and his strong organization, particularly in the key early state of Iowa. Alexander -- who dropped out shortly after third-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire in 1996 -- acknowledged today that he has a tough road ahead, but he insisted his candidacy is viable.
In recent days and weeks, he has expressed irritation over what he sees as the efforts of the news media and some establishment Republicans to anoint Bush as the party's nominee. In interviews, Alexander argued that the lead enjoyed by Bush and Dole means little now and could evaporate once the candidates are forced to articulate their positions.
"In the end, voters make up their own minds," he said. "I think it's very important for us to have a contest of ideas and see what we're all made of."
During his two terms as Tennessee governor, starting in 1979, Alexander established himself as in the vanguard of new, progressive southern Republican governors, successfully recruiting new businesses and improving education. He also raised taxes, a move that has hurt with some conservative political candidates over the years.
Alexander has portrayed himself as a principled conservative, but has never been the favorite of the social conservatives, and he lacks the name recognition that both Dole and Bush enjoy.
On the other hand, Alexander's chief fund-raiser, former Republican National Committee finance chairman Ted Welch, is among the party's most respected. Govs. Mike Huckabee (Ark.) and Don Sundquist (Tenn.), and former Iowa governor Terry E. Branstad have signed on. Branstad is especially crucial: He has helped Alexander build what many party strategists view as perhaps the most formidable Iowa campaign machine.
Sundquist praised Alexander today, saying, "We need a straight-talking president who relies on substance rather than semantics."
Alexander's speech today did not have a lot of the anti-Washington rhetoric that marked his 1996 campaign. Instead of demonizing the Washington bureaucracy, he stressed a more optimistic message: America was good, but could get better, particularly if more power were put in the hands of parents, teachers and local politicians to control the education of their children.
To do that, Alexander has proposed abolishing teacher unions and instituting merit raises for teachers.
He also laid out a conservative economic message that called for ending death taxes, the capital gains tax and the marriage penalty and tripling the tax deduction for each child to $8,000.
Alexander said he also supports building a strategic missile defense system, ending race-based scholarships and other affirmative action programs, and creating a new branch of the military to fight drugs.
Alexander took some vague swipes at President Clinton, denouncing him and "his faithful assistant," Vice President Gore. He asserted that the good economy was nothing but a "magic show" and that public education faced immense challenges that were not being faced by the president.
The new millennium, he said, will require "a moral foundation laid by a president who respects the office and who respects those who put him in the office."
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