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He's traversed America on a campaign to meet 'real people'; but the moderate Tennessean has found few followers

NINETEEN seventy-eight was the year when Lamar Alexander first discovered the political power of flannel.

The young, ambitious lawyer was running hard for governor of Tennessee and had grown weary of the usual politicos and party fund-raisers. So he ditched old campaign methods, slipped on a red-and-black lumberjack shirt, khakis, and broken-in boots, and hiked 1,000 miles, crisscrossing the state from Memphis to Knoxville.

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Mr. Alexander's aim, he said, was to meet ''real'' people, tell them who he was, and hear their solutions to problems. It worked - spectacularly. After two popular tours in the Tennessee statehouse, Alexander earned a reputation as a rising Republican star. President Bush brought him to Washington as secretary of education.

So when Alexander launched his own bid for the presidency a year ago, it seemed only natural that he begin by pounding the pavement. This time it's New Hampshire voters who've seen him amble up to their farmhouses and saunter around their historic town commons, all the while dressed like an ad for L.L. Bean.

But Alexander has encountered only tepid support in early primary states. When he ends a 100-mile trek from Concord, N.H., to the Granite State coast on Feb. 19, the gathering is likely to be small. Most of the state will be inside by the fire, watching Forbes's TV ads.

Magazine publisher Steve Forbes, a political neophyte, has preempted Alexander's hoped-for image as the race's Mr. Outsider. Media interest in other issues, from Gen. Colin Powell's not-quite campaign to budget wrangling in Washington, has kept Alexander and other second-tier candidates off the evening news, making it difficult to build crucial name recognition.

Though he was among the first to crank up his campaign and float his image on TV, Alexander remains back in the pack with only weeks to go until the nation's first primary here.

For the self-proclaimed Washington outsider noted for his tenacity and not completely discounted by observers yet, the next few weeks may reveal if the optimism and hope of his stump speeches can finally be translated into votes.

Tom Rath, a New Hampshire strategist on Alexander's side, remains warily confident. ''Early on, there was an internal decision to stick to the plan and not panic. This campaign, if it was ever going to be successful, was going to be successful at the end,'' he says.

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Alexander insists he's the only candidate who can beat President Clinton and would solve the country's problems by shipping authority back to the states.

''I would like to be the president that leads us into the next century expecting less from Washington and more of ourselves,'' he offers.

He uses his experience as governor - ''I believe I'm the only one running for president who's ever balanced [a budget]'' - and as a businessman to set himself apart from GOP rivals. ''Every politician ought to be sentenced to try to live and work under the rules set up while in office,'' he says, referring to a day-care business he started after serving as governor.

Alexander supports tax reform that includes cutting rates on income, capital gains, and inheritance, while keeping deductions for charitable donations and home mortgages. He weighs in on the flat-tax debate by calling it ''a nutty idea in the Jerry Brown tradition.''

Education is one of the cornerstones of his platform. Alexander draws on his experience as University of Tennessee president and US secretary of education when he calls for school choice and privatization. He proposes to close the Education Department he once led.

But Alexander's overarching message is the need to reduce the power of the federal government. Though he says he opposes abortion and gun control, his belief that states should address these issues is so strong that he would not support federal legislation on them. ''We know what to do,'' he says of local politicians, and referring to the name of his newest book.

Alexander is a slight man with an assuring voice and just a touch of a Southern accent. When he speaks to a crowd, his movements are restrained; he appeals to an audience through logic, not emotion. But he's a talented storyteller, and his addresses are peppered with yarns of his youth.

Andrew Lamar Alexander was reared in small-town Tennessee amid the dogwoods, the deer, and the scenic vistas of the Great Smoky Mountains. In Maryville, Tenn., Alexander led a childhood of paper routes and Fourth of July parades, piano lessons and snowball fights.

He credits his parents, scout masters, teachers, Sunday school, and neighbors with keeping him too busy to be in trouble. If children could grow up that way now, he says, many problems of today's youths would solve themselves.

Alexander was an overachiever, winning numerous piano competitions, playing trombone in the school band, and lettering in basketball and tennis. He was a natural leader, voted president of his class in high school and governor of the Tennessee American Legion Boys State. Story goes that before he was even off the bus that shuttled him to Boys State, he had painted his campaign posters with the slogan, ''Let's go far ... with Lamar!''

At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, he continued to excel. His first taste of the governor's mansion came when, at 19, he visited with his girlfriend and her father, who told the young Alexander, ''I expect you'll live here some day.''

His Southern roots were stretched as he attended law school on scholarship at New York University. He quickly adapted to the city streets, a world away from the winding paths of Appalachia. ''I plunged ahead with my studies, and after a while, I began to see Washington Square as a neighborhood,'' writes Alexander in his book. ''In fact, in New York ... there are neighborhoods on top of neighborhoods. All of these neighborhoods, it seemed to me then, added up to a truly magnificent city.''

After clerking with a judge in New Orleans (where Alexander moonlighted as a musician on Bourbon Street), he began to traffic in political circuits. Alexander wound up under the wing of not-yet-elected Sen. Howard Baker, with whom he has since forged a lifelong friendship. Alexander then spent the next 11 years Ping- Ponging between Washington and Nashville politics.

In 1979, he began his first term as governor. Four years later, he was easily reelected. After attracting the Nissan and Saturn automobile plants to his state, helping to cut Tennessee's government employees and debt, enacting a merit-pay system for teachers, and lowering the tax rate to the nation's fifth lowest, the consensus was that Alexander could have won a third term if not for the law holding governors to two terms.

Alexander fans say his civility and sincerity are what make him a different breed of politician. He's the kind of man described as comforting - and is likened to such figures as Mr. Rogers and the TV father of Patty Duke.

''Is he a down-to-earth, practical, common sense ... man who feels as comfortable with the working man as someone in high office,'' asks Ted Welch, Alexander's chief fund-raiser and longtime friend. ''The answer is absolutely yes.

''Everyone who gets to know him gets to like him,'' Mr. Welch says. ''His attitude is not the roller-coaster type, where you're either up or down. He's just steady.''

But observers and pollsters say no one gets elected for being nice. Alexander, they say, has not captured the nation's attention. The wind from his early mantra of ''cut their pay and send them home'' went out of his sails with the '94 congressional elections, when voters showed their distaste of Washington by voting out scores of politicians.

''The problem with Alexander's message is that it doesn't set him apart from the other Republican candidates,'' says John Pitney, political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. ''It's as if Lamar Alexander went to the Republican store and picked a generic identity off the shelf.''

Part of the confusion may stem from his drift to the right. Traditionally moderate, he has taken more conservative stances in the quest for the nomination. ''This is not the Lamar we thought we knew,'' says Mike Nelson, a political scientist at Rhodes College in Memphis. ''He chose a message that is not the real Lamar because he thought that would work, but that's not working either. It's like cheating and getting a D.''

What Alexander does have going for him is a well-financed campaign. He has six of the last eight finance chairmen of the Republican National Committee on his side. Tennesseans have given more money to presidential campaigns than any state except Texas.

But money is also an issue that, if Alexander becomes a serious contender, may plague him. In his confirmation hearings for secretary of education in 1991, critics raised questions of how Alexander earned the money that's made him a millionaire. Democrats made allegations - all denied by Alexander who was easily confirmed - that while governor and president of the University of Tennessee he profited from his positions by making real estate investments based on information not available to the public.

Meanwhile, Alexander will keep pitching the kind of solutions he found during his two-month trek across the US last summer, he says, grass-roots solutions. ''Less from Washington, more from ourselves,'' urges Alexander. ''That's what made us a such a remarkable country and that's what will make us great again.''

'I have a vision ... where families stick together and fathers stick around.'

- Alexander on family values

'I would like ... to lead us into the next century expecting less from Washington and more of ourselves.'

- Alexander on government

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