As he campaigned around the state this week pursued by an ever-growing press horde, Lamar Alexander marveled at the change.

"I walked for a year across New Hampshire, and I almost never saw a television camera," he told a group of plaid-shirted fourth-graders from Bedford Memorial School the other day.

Now, they're everywhere -- and, three days before the New Hampshire primary, the former Tennessee governor is exactly where he wanted to be: among the top three GOP presidential contenders.

For months, while Alexander struggled as an asterisk in the polls, joking that Kato Kaelin had better name recognition, observers scoffed at his prediction that he would eventually emerge from the pack.

But Alexander ran the most traditional of campaigns here, lining up support in the state legislature, building a grass-roots network, and -- donning his trademark plaid shirt -- doggedly walking his way across the state.

In the meantime, Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (Kan.) has struggled to give voters a reason to back him; Texas Sen. Phil Gramm has been forced to drop out of the race; and magazine publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes Jr. may have peaked before the first actual votes were cast.

And, just as Alexander and his advisers envisioned it, the eve of the New Hampshire primary finds him battling with one other rival against Dole.

Only the name of the opponent has changed. The Alexander campaign had expected to be running against Gramm. Instead, the other chief threat to Dole is conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan. Tom Rath, Alexander's New Hampshire chairman, said questions about Buchanan's electability make that an even better outcome than predicted.

"It really feels that the opportunity we worked three years to get is there now," Rath said last week, as a few hundred people braved a snowy February night to hear Alexander speak at a Londonderry church. "The race is where we always wanted it to be."

Alexander's strong third-place showing at the Iowa caucuses Feb. 12 "hung a sign out that put us on the map," Rath said. "We're going to try to light that sign up here."

If the current situation does not quite amount to "Lamarmania," as Rath put it, at least the exclamation point at the end of the candidate's "Lamar!" posters no longer seems like a cruel joke.

Even the candidate, whose mild-mannered demeanor makes him far from an electrifying campaigner, seems somewhat pumped up as he regales crowds with his piano rendition of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and asks them to join in "God Bless America."

On the stump, Alexander has expanded his anti-Washington rhetoric to dwell on the importance of family and community institutions in building values. To make the point that government policies can't replace values instilled by parents, Alexander likes to tell audiences that "my mother gave me my library card when I was three years old, not the president." And although it sometimes draws a quizzical response from his listeners, he scolds Congress for requiring states to expel students who bring weapons to schools.

"I think that shows how far off the cliff we've driven," Alexander told a gathering in Hooksett last week, adding that it would have prevented him from taking his penknife to school in Maryville, Tenn.

Alexander's prescription for "less from Washington and more from ourselves" encompasses advocacy of things like "bigger Boy Scout troops" and parents "clicking off" television sets in their homes. "What we need to do is go back to being a strong family, a nosy neighbor, to supporting the algebra teacher who keeps an eye on us."

The role of the president in all this is a bit fuzzy. "In the end, I'm going to try to be a little bit of a preacher," Alexander said.

He also is making pointed comparisons -- with Dole and Buchanan, and with President Clinton.

He argues that Dole lacks the vision to be president -- "our most respected legislative engineer," Alexander calls the majority leader in a gift-wrapped put-down -- and he often points out the 17-year age difference between him and the 72-year-old Dole in generational terms. He deems Buchanan too extreme to be elected.

Even as he denounces negative advertising in his speeches, Alexander is running a television commercial that blasts Dole as a "Washington insider" and Forbes as a "Wall Street insider."

Asked the difference between his negative ads and the ones he is criticizing his opponents for, Alexander said: "About $4 million is the difference. One is on television. One is on radio. One was $4 million. One was $30,000. There's a big difference."

As for Clinton, Alexander calls him a man "who felt it necessary to work out his midlife crisis in public," adding, "At a time when the greatest difficulty we have is teaching our children the difference between right and wrong, Bill Clinton is exactly the wrong man to have as president of the United States."

Alexander communications director Mark Merritt said Alexander's remarks are not a veiled reference to Clinton's personal life. "You have a president who's changing his mind all the time, rediscovering himself, his beliefs and his ideology on an almost hourly basis," he said. "Those kinds of inconsistencies don't set a good example."

Whatever the meaning, it seems to be working. Crowds have started to chant along as Alexander reminds them to learn their "ABC's -- Alexander Beats Clinton." As Alexander put it in an address to the Christian Coalition at a forum Friday night, "I'm from the real world. Bill Clinton doesn't want to run against me."

Voters interviewed at various Alexander campaign stops last week were by and large not so much impassioned about Alexander as having had concluded that he was the least-objectionable alternative in a disappointing field.

"I thought it was interesting to hear some fresh ideas and not a lot of put-downs of other people," said Carolyn Morris, 52, an administrative assistant.

She said Dole was "the same old thing." Forbes lacked "enough political experience, much as I hate to say it," and Buchanan was "much" too conservative for her taste.

"I've listened to Dole and Forbes beat each other up," said Melissa Mercure, of Keene. "Maybe it's time for someone who's not running a negative campaign."

Gary Safron, 49, a chemical company sales manager, said he was moved by the ABC pitch. "His speech here tonight indicates he'll be able to take care of Clinton," Safron said.

Norman May, a retired school principal from Rindge, said he had "been a Dole man from the very beginning" but was now moving to Alexander. "This guy very much impressed me with his ideas," he said. "Dole, sometimes he may not see the forest for the trees. Lamar Alexander is outside."

"Of the ones that I've seen, he's probably the best of the bunch at this point," said Dave Nelson, 43, a software engineer. "But as I said, I don't have a real fire this time out." Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report. CAPTION: Lamar Alexander holds boots and hip waders in front of Joe's Meats in North Hampton to symbolize a rise in mud-slinging since the candidates arrived in New Hampshire