It was 1968, Richard M. Nixon had just been elected president, and Lamar Alexander, who had been working as an aide to Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), was waiting to learn what job he might get in the new Republican administration.

So the timing of his marriage proposal to Honey Buhler, an aide to Sen. John G. Tower (R-Tex.), made perfect sense.

"He said, Well, while I'm unemployed, why don't we just get married,' " Honey Alexander recalled of the night her husband proposed. "He had this period of time when he didn't have anything else to do."

That is Andrew Lamar Alexander, a disciplined, methodical man who arranges his life carefully to avoid wasting time and maintains an undeviating focus on his ultimate goal.

Alexander spent five months walking 1,022 miles across the state to win the gubernatorial election in 1978, chalking an X in the road where he stopped each night and picking up at the same point the next morning. When he was hit by a pickup truck on the ninth day, he took three days off and started again.

"His parents were people who felt that if you were awake for 18 or 20 hours a day, you should be productive for all 18 or 20 hours and that's the way Lamar was," said Alexander's law school roommate, National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

As Alexander campaigns for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination -- preaching the gospel of returning power from Washington to the states -- those traits are as evident as the long underwear that peeks out from his shirtsleeves on his rounds of New Hampshire towns.

Alexander is banking on positioning himself as the one outsider in a field of inside-the-Beltway politicians, and the only candidate with executive branch experience, his two terms as Tennessee governor. He is also hoping that his affable demeanor will offer a welcome contrast to two rivals, Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (Kan.) and Sen. Phil Gramm (Tex.), often noted for their abrasive personalities.

But Alexander is virtually unknown, and concedes he is not an electrifying speaker on the stump. He is working to retool an anti-Washington, anti-Congress message -- "Cut their pay and send them home" -- that many believe was overtaken by the results of the November elections, and to convince conservatives that he is not the moderate Republican that some believe him to be.

And in the event that Alexander becomes a leading contender, his complicated personal finances are likely to attract new scrutiny.

When the 54-year-old Alexander formally announces his candidacy Tuesday on the courthouse steps in his hometown of Maryville, Tenn., the spot where his father introduced 10-year-old Lamar to the local Republican congressman, Howard H. Baker Sr., it will be the culmination of years of careful planning for the presidency.

Since leaving the Bush administration as education secretary, Alexander has devoted much of his time to preparing for the campaign. He drove 8,500 miles around the country last year and launched a monthly C-SPAN style talk show to promote discussion of Republican policies, and Alexander's political future. Campaign Walk Across Tennessee He built a campaign organization in New Hampshire that Gov. Steve Merrill (R) has said is the best in the state, and lined up six of the last eight Republican National Committee finance chairmen to help in a fund-raising effort that Alexander says will amass the $20 million he needs this year to fuel his run.

"If there is one trait above all others that I've seen in him . . . it is the ability, almost the insistence on focusing his energies, his time, his resources, and mind on the essential thing he must do in order to accomplish what he wants to accomplish," said Doug Bailey, a longtime Republican adviser to Alexander who now produces the Hotline daily political newsletter. "There's no better metaphor for that than the walk."

Alexander's walk across Tennessee, in a red and black plaid shirt that became his trademark, was aimed at replacing his image as an aloof, intellectual Republican with a populist persona that showed he understood the needs of real people in the state.

The rhetorical equivalent in the presidential campaign is Alexander's unswerving message that -- despite two stints working in the Senate, as an aide in the Nixon White House, and, most recently, as President George Bush's education secretary -- he is an outsider.

"You have now heard from five good men from Washington, D.C.," Alexander told New Hampshire Republicans last week at a gathering of potential presidential candidates. "I would like to tell you where I am coming from, because I'm a little different. In the first place, I'm not from Washington, D.C."

If Alexander's "cut their pay and send them home" message has lost some of its punch, Alexander says now that it "was just part of a larger idea. It got my foot in the door to talk about the entire issue" of restricting the "arrogant empire" of federal government.

Alexander has staked out the most extreme anti-Washington position of the Republican candidates; he opposes the Republican crime bill because he does not believe the federal government should be telling states how to run their prison systems. Likewise, he would turn welfare over to states, no strings attached, and let them decide what restrictions to impose.

"He's the most rational, reasonable personality in this race with the most radical message," Tom Rath, his New Hampshire campaign chairman, said.

Whether that message is an invention to propel Alexander to the presidency or the outgrowth of long-standing reservations about the role of the federal government is a matter for debate. Alexander began in politics as a protege of the centrist Baker, earning a reputation as a moderate, Southern governor, much in the model of the president he proposes to replace. Now a Critic of Education Department

"I don't think it's just a show. I think he's a little bit of a born-again populist and a born-again radical but not a phony born-again," said Republican strategist William Kristol. Others have more doubts. "Alexander Comes on Strong for '96 -- But Should Conservatives Trust Him?" read a headline last month in the conservative Human Events magazine.

"Lamar has never been an easy person to pin down," said Tom Ingram, Alexander's chief of staff as governor. "He's never been one to speak radically or draw a lot of lines in the sand, but on a lot of issues he's always been very conservative, and I think that's revealing itself more now than maybe it did when he ran for governor."

Alexander now proposes abolishing the department he once managed, and says he suggested just that to President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Yet there is no indication he made the case to Bush when he served in Bush's Cabinet.

Some education analysts say his argument that the federal government should remove itself from the business of elementary and secondary education is at odds with his activities at the department, where he championed the idea of having voluntary national standards and tests.

Alexander "saw the federal government as playing an essential role in encouraging action at the state level," said Terry W. Hartle, a former top Democratic Senate education aide who has high praise for Alexander's performance as secretary. "He now believes the federal government has virtually no role to play in improving American education. This is not consistent with the position he took as secretary."

Exactly how Alexander would draw the line about what is and is not a proper subject for federal involvement remains unclear. Alexander, who served as president of the University of Tennessee from 1988-1991, says higher education, such as the popular student loan program, should remain on the federal agenda.

And on some issues, Alexander still gives conservatives pause. For example, Alexander, whose wife is on the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, says public radio and television are "going to have to go on the cutting block like everything else" but does not propose ending all funding.

Perhaps the touchiest issue for Alexander is abortion. He describes himself as "pro-life," but when pressed, offers a fuzzy outline of his views.

Alexander says that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling establishing a woman's right to abortion, was wrongly decided. But asked about the court's 1989 ruling that said states could impose abortion restrictions so long as they do not constitute an "undue burden," Alexander says, "That's where the Supreme Court is, so that's where I am." He said he has no interest in overturning Supreme Court decisions through a constitutional amendment.

While the federal government has no business in the abortion debate, Alexander says, states should be permitted to impose limits on abortion and even ban them outright in almost all circumstances, something that is not permitted under current law. But when pressed, Alexander says, "I would not have banned all abortions in Tennessee when I was governor." As governor, Alexander defended his state's three-day waiting period against a court challenge.

"As president of the United States," he said, "I'm not going to recommend to states what restrictions they should put on abortion."

Said Carol Long of the National Right to Life Committee Political Action Committee, "I'm not sure anyone really knows what his position is."

Former senator Baker says Alexander's "greatest strength is how well-modulated he is. . . . It's a very even-tempered sort of approach to issues and not everybody appreciates that."

Alexander's roots are in the hills of east Tennessee, a place where, Alexander says, "the stock in trade of Republican meetings is ranting and raving against the federal government." Alexander's late father, Andrew, was an elementary school principal who took a job with Alcoa to earn more money and was involved in local Republican politics; his mother, Floreine, started a preschool in the family's backyard garage, and was given to statements like, "God gave us this beautiful day to rake leaves."

Asked to describe himself as a child, Alexander summons one word: "Busy." He was up at 4 a.m. for an hour to deliver the newspaper, up again at 6 to practice the piano (Alexander won two state championships and remains an accomplished player.) There was football, choir practice, and prayer meetings after school; Boy Scouts and church on weekends.

Like President Clinton, Alexander was a delegate to Boy's State, where he ran for governor (he arrived with posters proclaiming, "Let's Go Far . . . With Lamar") and won. Then-Gov. Frank G. Clement (D) spoke at the inauguration, and one line from his speech stuck in Alexander's mind: "Someday one of you boys is going to grow up to be the real governor of Tennessee." Worked as Aide to Baker and Harlow

For college, Alexander took what was then a big step, heading to Vanderbilt in Nashville rather than some place closer to home. In college, he wrote controversial editorials for the school newspaper supporting desegregation (the student body voted against it). His classmate, writer Roy Blount Jr., remembers Alexander as being "very crisp and unemotional in his arguments" against segregation. "Lamar had a kind of statesmanlike quality in college," Blount said.

Alexander won a law school scholarship that took him even farther from home, to New York University. After law school, he clerked in New Orleans for federal appeals court Judge John Minor Wisdom, well-known for his rulings in civil rights cases, and earned extra money by playing trombone at a club in the French Quarter.

By then, it was clear Alexander wanted a life in politics. He helped in Baker's Senate campaign and then joined Baker in Washington as his first legislative assistant before moving to the White House in 1969 to work for Bryce N. Harlow, Nixon's congressional liaison. The next year, Alexander returned to Tennessee, managing the successful gubernatorial campaign of Winfield Dunn (R).

In 1974, it was time for Alexander to run himself. By his own account, he performed miserably. "I didn't have a very clear message, and I wasn't ready for the general election," he says. Alexander's opponent, Ray Blanton (D), tarred the former White House aide as a Nixon "choir boy."

Four years later, the circumstances favored Alexander; Gov. Blanton was under criminal investigation, and Alexander's argument against the Democratic nominee, banker Jake F. Butcher, was, "Why would you replace a small-time wheeler and dealer with a big-time wheeler and dealer?"

As it turned out, Alexander was rushed into office three days early because federal prosecutors learned that Blanton was selling pardons for prisoners.

During the campaign, Honey Alexander discovered she was pregnant with their fourth child, but did not tell her husband until after the election. "I didn't think he needed any more distractions," she said. "He was focused and it wasn't going to change anything."

As governor, Alexander concentrated on two related issues: bringing jobs to the state and reforming its education system. In 1980, he persuaded Nissan Motors to locate a $779 million plant in the state, and, three years later, he convinced General Motors to build its $5 billion Saturn plant there. Raised Sales Tax for Schools Program

In his second term, convinced that a good education system was critical to luring new jobs to the state, he embarked on an ambitious education reform program that featured merit pay for teachers. The Tennessee Education Association opposed the plan, and Alexander's proposal lost by a single vote in the Democratic state legislature in 1983; he then turned his attention to stumping the state to build support for the measure and won passage the next year.

Some Tennesseans, particularly the teachers union, say the merit pay plan was more window dressing than real reform; Alexander defends the achievement but says that, if anything, his approach was "too timid." To pay for the education program, Alexander won a 1-cent increase in the sales tax, the largest tax increase in state history. He also raised gasoline taxes three times to finance road improvements.

Although that tax record could become an issue in the campaign, Alexander is unrepentant, saying he balanced the budget in his state and kept taxes low (Tennessee taxes remained the fifth lowest in the nation) while improving conditions.

"I don't have one minute of regret," he said. "I don't expect to hear any sermons from any Washington politicians who have voted to raise federal taxes."

As his second term drew to a close, Alexander decided it was time to become reacquainted with his family. "I characterize my father as an egret, standing on one leg and viewing the world," his 14-year-old daughter Leslee wrote in a 1987 essay. "Although powerful in government, he is withdrawn in family life." The Alexanders set off on a trip to Australia, the subject of Alexander's book, "Six Months Off."

Writing about their departure, Alexander described the unaccustomed feeling of being unscheduled. "All that stretched before us was a big glob of time with nothing to do and I was not programmed to leave big globs of time empty," he wrote. "Honey said, We'll see how long before you start making lists.' " CAPTION: LAMAR ALEXANDER CAPTION: Lamar Alexander and President George Bush, top, relax after the Tennessean was sworn in as a Cabinet officer in 1991. Left, nominee testifies before the Senate labor committtee, where his appreciating net worth was questioned. At an earlier swearing in 1983, below, Gov. Alexander, his wife Honey, and their son, Will, watch presentation of the flag in Nashville.