A dark and lonely Chevy Suburban is groaning down a sun-blasted Iowa highway. Lamar Alexander, baking in the way-back seat, calls for more air conditioning. But the driver can't hear him. He asks again. Sorry, says the driver, it's already cranked all the way up.

Alexander slumps back and swelters.

He reaches up and fiddles with the light fixture -- could this be a hidden air vent?


He is, by his own reckoning, one of three -- maybe four -- people in the entire United States with a genuine shot at being the next president. One of them travels aboard a government 727. Another, the governor of Texas, goes in a luxury sedan at the head of a caravan of press buses.

Lamar Alexander is riding in an old sport-utility vehicle with underpowered air conditioning. His entire traveling entourage consists of a kid at the wheel, wife Honey riding shotgun, an old pal in the middle seat and one reporter.

He balls up the garbage from his Wendy's carry-out and stares through the window at the passing fields. "I hadn't realized just how big Iowa is," he says.

He is a man haunted by almosts and might-have-beens. In his view, he almost broke through the clutter in 1996 to take the Republican nomination from Bob Dole. He is not the only one who thinks so. Many party leaders agree. He was the sensible alternative -- a former governor, a Cabinet veteran, well-disciplined and smooth.

Who could have guessed that a man with no experience and infinite money, the publisher of Forbes magazine, would join the race, dumping tens of millions into the early primaries and interposing himself in the midst of what might have been a two-man race?

"Jack Germond says if Steve Forbes had not gotten into the race last time, I would have been the nominee," Alexander says ruefully. He is still staring out the window. A break in the fields -- soybeans turn to cornstalks. "I did better in New Hampshire the first time I ran than Ronald Reagan did on his first time, better than George Bush did on his first time, better than Bob Dole did his first two times."

It might have been enough to make him the favorite for 2000. Republicans love to elevate an heir apparent. A strong second becomes the next frontrunner. Instead, Alexander came out of '96 with all the heat of old bathwater.


"I don't think I can explain how things are what they are," he says. "I think I know what they should be and how I trust they will be."

A month or so ago, in a moment of candor, Alexander said that this weekend's Iowa straw poll would be crucial in his quest for the White House. He must look strong while George W. Bush looks merely mortal. His is not a campaign of fervent insurgents. People won't stick with him just to send a message. His supporters are big fish in the GOP mainstream, and they are -- as several confirm -- eager to swim over to Bush unless Lamar gets moving, and fast.

But that is a cold calculation, and misses entirely the heat of a man's dream, his ambition. Lamar Alexander has spent a lifetime assembling the makings of a bonfire. He has been campaigning tirelessly and without stumbling for five straight years. He has held million-dollar fund-raising dinners. He has signed up the former governor of Iowa to chair his campaign.

He has all the qualifications: he was a Nixon aide like Patrick Buchanan, a governor like George W. Bush, a Cabinet secretary like Elizabeth Dole and a businessman like Steve Forbes. Voters are angry at Washington; Lamar is angry at Washington. Voters are worried about education; Lamar is worried about education.

He just needs a spark.

"Maybe I'm not catching on," says Alexander. A recent poll in New Hampshire shows him at 2 percent, tied with the Christian conservative activist Gary Bauer. "Maybe. But I think I'm making progress. Look at Wapello County. I got 53 votes there in '96. This year I have 48 people signed up to attend the straw poll from there. I think I'm still on track."

Counting the votes one by one. Alexander will visit every town in Iowa if that's what it takes to become president. His chairman, Terry Branstad, visited every Iowa county at least once a year during his 16 years as the state's beloved governor, and so Alexander is visiting every county, too.

The marathon fits with his bedrock ideal -- that the prize ought to go to the person who puts in the most hours. "Voters need to ask themselves, who is the best prepared?" he likes to say.

This particular heat-struck day started hundreds of miles from here, up near Sioux City, and passed through Cherokee and Fort Dodge, and now the Chevy is headed for a rural route west of Des Moines, where two dozen people are waiting to meet him on the porch at Arden and Donna Augspurger's house.

This audience brings the day's total to perhaps 100. He gives them the same solid speech he gives everyone. His campaign, he says, "is about more than raising money. It's about raising children, raising farm prices, and raising standards."

Alexander is a very good speaker. He has a gentle voice and a smooth delivery. He makes his points in logical order. He doesn't ramble or lose his place.

But something isn't quite right with his eyes. He has trouble focusing on the two dozen people on the porch. Instead, his gaze is fastened on a vague point perhaps 75 feet away, somewhere near the pond that Arden Augspurger dug himself.

It is the studied gaze of a man who has perfected the art of addressing large crowds and television cameras. It is pretty, but frictionless. And it takes friction to make a spark.

John and Linda Alexander, no relation, live next door to the Augspurgers. They listen to the candidate explain his plans for Iowa agriculture, which are more elaborate and complex than the frontrunner's. They hear his education program and nod as he says it's time for integrity in the White House. Branstad steps up and praises Lamar Alexander as the best of the 200 governors he served with.

"Interesting," says John. "It's the first we started looking at him," says Linda.

"I'm on the fence," says Irene Koch. "He's a fine man, and down-to-earth. I like Mrs. Dole, too."

These are familiar assessments. After lunch at the Fort Dodge Golden Corral, attended by some 40 people, a local schoolteacher named Todd Parker said of Lamar Alexander: "He's very honest and very down-to-earth. I like his ideas on education. We need a change, and a lot of candidates I've heard will bring us that."

The Augspurgers went to a hamburger fry in 1995 and though they had never been involved in politics before, they became Alexander fans that night. "He's real. He's our kind of people," says Donna.

How's he doing?

"I don't know. Every time there's a group that listens to him, they like him. I just think the people that like Lamar are a quiet group."

Alexander hears them. Hears them calling him to keep going. He is sure it's more than just the siren song of desire.

If he can just hang on . . .