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Great Expectations and Lost Hopes

Buchanan, Alexander Suddenly See Light at the End of Voting Booth

THE tiny Maltese dog dolled up in a red, white, and blue sweater with ''Go, Pat, Go'' buttons poses demurely for TV camera crews looking for a little color at Pat Buchanan's press conference.

An hour to the north, at a resort in Laconia, N.H., small children in red-plaid shirts dot the audience at a campaign event for newly energized candidate Lamar Alexander.

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Sometimes, it's the small touches that make the mood. And for both Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Alexander, ebullient after strong showings in the Iowa caucuses, the mood is one of excitement and momentum - that their time has come.

New Hampshire is the acid test for both campaigns: Do well in Tuesday's all-important first primary and show you're for real. Do poorly and fade into New Hampshire's zero-degree tundra.

Senator Phil Gramm's stunning departure yesterday from the race for the Republican nomination could benefit Buchanan in particular. Buchanan already has a strong base here that has remained active since his 1992 campaign; Gramm supporters may decide to join it.

And even though the New Hampshire economy is doing much better than it was four years ago, Buchanan's message of economic nationalism plays well here.

''Buchanan's sitting there on the right with no serious competition; his support is only going to get bigger,'' says nonpartisan pollster Dick Bennett. ''Social moderates in the state have got to rally behind someone. It should be [Bob] Dole, but it may not be. So Buchanan could win in New Hampshire.''

Alexander, for his part, is reveling in his surprise 18-percent showing in Iowa - third behind Senator Dole (26 percent) and Buchanan (23 percent) - and in the sudden interest he's won from the news media. Like President Clinton four years ago, who took a second-place showing in New Hampshire and created an image of victory by calling himself the ''Comeback Kid,'' Alexander says he ''won'' in Iowa.

At the Margate resort in Laconia, where Alexander met with undecided voters who came to hear his pitch, 200 people showed up on a zero-degree evening, more than double the expected turnout. Long languishing in single digits in polls, Alexander's surge in Iowa has emboldened him. His message has gained focus: Respect Bob Dole, but I'm the man to lead the nation into the 21st century (a veiled reference to Dole's age). I'm also the man who can beat Clinton in a debate (see Dole's weak State of the Union response). And I'll create jobs (a bid for Buchanan voters).

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Dole's campaign dismisses Alexander as flavor of the week, the latest contender to get his 15 minutes. ''In light of Iowa, it's a two-man race, Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan,'' says Dole spokesman Nelson Warfield. And what of Alexander? ''I guess he can't stand up and say 'I lost,' '' Mr. Warfield says.

Still, Alexander is milking his 18 points for all they're worth. As Dole reaped two more gubernatorial endorsements - William Weld of Massachusetts and George Allen of Virginia; Dole now has the backing of 24 of the country's 31 GOP governors - Alexander could also boast a new high-profile Republican endorsement, former Education Secretary William Bennett.

But at the New Hampshire State House, where Dole was addressing the legislature, the talk in the corridors was over whether Buchanan could beat Dole on Tuesday. ''Buchanan could do well because of the Union-Leader,'' says State Rep. Robert Asselin (D) of Manchester, referring to the influential Manchester daily newspaper, which endorsed Buchanan last December.

''At this point, there's nothing Dole can do about Buchanan,.'' says Rep. Peter Burling (D) of Cornish. ''All he can do is hope the right isn't smart enough to figure out that they'd better rally behind Buchanan. Dole's biggest problem is that the Union-Leader is going to spend the next week explaining they'd better do that.''

Marge Hallyburton, a Republican representative from Hillsboro, thinks Buchanan won't pick up enough votes to beat her candidate, Bob Dole. ''I feel strongly that a person who paid his dues ought not be snubbed in his last attempt at major office,'' she says. ''And he will do a superb job. A Democratic friend of mine leaned over today and said, 'He's the only one of your group that sounds presidential.' ''

Back at the Alexander event in Laconia, businessman Jim Wallace leans up against the wall and takes in the candidate's pitch.

Did Alexander, who now hands out plaid shirts, but doesn't wear them himself, make a sale? Mr. Wallace pauses a moment. ''I found him convincing ... but I'm still undecided.''

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