Enter Alexander, the great pretender

A new name in New Hampshire claims an edge over Republican rivals: he thinks he could beat Clinton. John Carlin reports
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The Independent Online
''THERE'S no there there'' was Gertrude Stein's crushingly epistolary reflection on the charms of Oakland, California.

While it would be unfair to pin such a label on Peterborough, a chocolate- box town built in the prim New England style, some of the good burghers who turned up to watch Lamar Alexander on Thursday might have thought that here was a presidential contender deserving of La Stein's lacerating wit.

"I can see a rising, shining America... I am optimistic about our country's future... There is nothing more important in our country than education", he declared, unveiling before an audience of 150 locals and 200 visiting journalists a talent for banal generality of which Bill Clinton would have been proud.

What he manifestly lacks, however, is the President's ability to infuse platitude with passion. While Mr Clinton can be relied upon to thunder, to thump, to moisten an eye, the best Mr Alexander is able to muster is a narrowing of the brows and an unusually rapid blink rate, devices which convey earnestness but not feeling, much less a superiority of the intellect. (Contrast this with millionaire rival Steve Forbes, whose wide staring eyes bless him with a mad professorial, if alarmingly unpresidential, demeanour.)

The comparison with Bill Clinton, a former governor of Arkansas, is one that Lamar Alexander, a former governor of Tennessee, openly invites. Following the departure of Senator Phil Gramm from the race, Mr Alexander has suddenly emerged as a serious contender for this year's Republican presidential nomination. He has had the temerity, what is more, to identify the edge he purports to have over an unimpressive field in terms of what he calls his ABC: "Alexander Beats Clinton". None of the others - not Bob Dole, not Pat Buchanan, not Steve Forbes - has it in him, he contends, to defeat an incumbent identified by all Republicans as a fearsomely impressive campaigner.

This Tuesday ,Republican voters in New Hampshire - a state of barely a million lily-white people who know about crime, poverty and urban living from what they watch on TV - will determine whether Mr Alexander will have a chance to test his presumption at the November polls. The skewed electoral significance of New Hampshire is as an historic indicator of the degree to which first impressions shape political outcomes in America: since 1952 no Republican candidate has gone on to win a presidential election without winning the primary election here, the kick-off to a round of similar contests that will be held around the United States over the next four months. While New Hampshire's record could be broken this time around, a poor showing would rule Mr Alexander out of the race, the Washington savants say.

But if the result reflects the latest polls and Mr Alexander emerges among a tightly bunched top three, alongside Mr Dole and Mr Buchanan, then he will be proclaimed to be the candidate with the winning momentum. While Pat Buchanan's xenophobic, red-meat populism appeals to blue-collar Republicans, the conventional wisdom is that the party grandees in Washington and the money-laden corporations, wishing to avoid a Clinton landslide in November, will combine to ensure that however well he does in New Hampshire, he is ultimately deprived of the big prize. As for Bob Dole, whose senatorial name recognition had positioned him streets ahead in the polls at the start of the year, failure to defeat Mr Alexander convincingly might sink his third and undoubtedly - for he is 73 - final bid for the White House into terminal decline.

That, at any rate, is the judgment of the experienced presidential punters. It is a judgment that Mr Alexander himself is keen to endorse. Buoyant, by his lights, at Thursday's meeting in Peterborough, he elicited a chorus of cheers from a group of teenage schoolchildren bused in for the occasion when he enthused: "I've gone up in the polls. People think I might win and all of a sudden I have a lot of new friends!" He was referring to the news media, who are suddenly mobbing him, as they have done his main competitors for the last month, with the tenacious intensity of a shoal of new-born fish.

The theme of his address concerned his plans to abolish the Department of Education and devolve power over schooling to churches and local communities. But he would not stop there. All of Washington, corrupt and inefficient, needed to be downsized. Heading off accusations of hypocrisy, having worked on the staffs of both Richard Nixon and George Bush, he quipped: "I was there long enough to be vaccinated - but not to be infected.''

Short on specifics, but informed by his poll-takers that the old anti- Washington saw still strikes a chord, the substance of his message came down to an undertaking that once president he would diminish his own power. Otherwise, and no less important given the weight attributed to "character" in determining the electoral winner, he based his appeal on an image of amiably all-American niceness. And on being younger than Mr Dole.

With trained purposefulness - left hand in his pocket, leading with the right - he put it to his politely Presbyterian audience that: "Senator Dole is a legislative engineer, but not an architect of vision. We should say to Bob Dole: 'You're not the right man to debate with Clinton, your time has passed'.'' Curiously, he acknowledged that Mr Clinton was a better orator than he was, but what voters would see in him that the dissolute, "zig-zagging" President lacked was a capacity "to teach kids the difference between right and wrong".

The remark drew bafflingly enthusiastic applause from the kids in the audience, who sat thoughtfully framed behind him for the benefit of the TV cameras. But at least one man in the audience, a photographer for the Peterborough Transcript, was unable to fathom how such a man could be considered presidential material. "It's all a mirage," he complained. "All a mirage created by the media."

Another mirage, occasioned at least in part by the media, was the spectacle that greeted Mr Alexander and the other seven remaining Republican hopefuls when they arrived on Thursday night at the studios of WMUR-TV in the city of Manchester to appear in what was billed as a "debate", but actually turned out to be an ill-mannered quiz show.

A phalanx of what looked like 1,000 football supporters stood outside the WMUR building waving banners and doing a lot of shouting. Allowed by a thin cordon of police to mingle, in a way that rival fans in Britain would never be, they were cheering, it turned out, for their favourite candidates. Cries, innocently youthful, of "Lamar! Lamar!", "Dole! Dole!" and "Go Pat! Go!" filled the cold night air.

Infiltrated into the crowd was a motley crew variously representing the Workers World Party, a group calling itself Expose the Right and the Fat Cats Street Theatre Company. One man dressed up as a Viking carried a "Noriega '96" poster. Another person, of indeterminate sex, was decked out as a moose.

One of the cats, sporting a painted moustache and pink cloth ears, echoed a thought in the Peterborough Transcript, which described the New Hampshire primary as a "third-rate horse race". If the moose had managed to raise $10m in campaign money, she suggested, as Mr Alexander had done, it might today have been declared to be a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination.