Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander laid off nearly half his senior campaign staff yesterday, as he became the first GOP presidential hopeful to suffer severe wounds from the George W. Bush juggernaut.

Alexander ordered the cuts as part of a plan to focus his dwindling resources on February's caucuses in Iowa, where aides said he will beef up staff and resources in a last-ditch effort to derail the Texas governor's campaign.

Steve Schmidt, Alexander's communications director and one of those losing their jobs, tried to make the best of a bad situation. "We are making structural changes while there is still time," he said. "The campaign will be around through the fall."

Schmidt, who will continue to help the campaign as a consultant, said Alexander will, in effect, put all his eggs into Iowa. "That is our moment of ignition," he said. "If we do well, the money will come into the campaign, national poll numbers will rise, and we will be in a position to compete in New Hampshire," which holds the first primary.

Other political operatives were not as optimistic. "If it's not a sign of death, it's surely a sign that the patient is about to head into cardiac arrest," said GOP pollster and strategist Tony Fabrizio, who worked for Bob Dole's campaign in 1996 but does not yet have a candidate for 2000.

Alexander aides acknowledge that in laying off four of the 10 staffers making $60,000 or more, the campaign could get caught in a vicious circle: With both donors and elected officials moving en masse to Bush, Alexander now will have an even harder time convincing prospective givers that he is a good investment.

Schmidt countered that the cutbacks are crucial for survival and that other candidates depending on traditional Republican donors will face much worse problems if they don't take similar actions soon. "They will wake up and find that their expenditures and revenues are so out of whack that they will have to lock up by lunchtime," he said.

"Bush has just sucked up all the oxygen," said an Alexander campaign source. "We are going to try to get to Iowa in this oxygen-deprived atmosphere."

Along with Alexander, candidates competing with Bush for dollars include former transportation secretary Elizabeth Dole and former vice president Dan Quayle. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has his own base of donors through his chairmanship of the Senate Commerce Committee, and such social-religious conservatives as Patrick J. Buchanan, Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes generally find financial backing from a different network of supporters.

In addition to Schmidt, the Alexander staffers on the chopping block are Katherine Phillips, the campaign's full-time lawyer; Schmidt's deputy, Jeff Macedo; and Brian Jones, who is in charge of research.

Alexander was almost a top contender in 1996, running third in Iowa and New Hampshire. He has been campaigning ever since and has picked up well-respected organizers in Iowa and New Hampshire -- former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and New Hampshire National Committeeman Tom Rath. But he has been unable to break out of the low single digits in most national polls.

Alexander, known as a highly effective fund-raiser, has failed to meet his cash goals this year: During the first six months, he is expected to raise about a third of his $7 million target, operatives said.

Alexander's forced cutbacks will elevate the importance of the Aug. 14 Republican straw poll in Ames, Iowa. The highly publicized event -- which tests organizational strength but has no influence over delegate selection -- will be crucial to Alexander's hopes. "He needs to do well in the straw poll, stay close to Governor Bush," Schmidt said.

CAPTION: Lamar Alexander's team hopes Iowa will be his "moment of ignition."