Alexander's bandwagon hits the road at last

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Milford, New Hampshire

He walked the breadth of New Hampshire last summer and he has been treading a mostly lonely path towards the Republican nomination for US President ever since. But as he set out walking again yesterday, around a picturesque New England green, Lamar Alexander found he could barely move for company.

"This is a bit different, isn't it?" murmured an aide as the former Tennessee governor inched around Milford's Oval, a heavy snow settling on his shoulders and on the reporters' note-books. Indeed, in the crush of cameramen and scribblers, the candidate in the red-plaid shirt was barely visible.

Mr Alexander, who likes to project himself as another Washington outsider, even though he served in the Bush administration, is a candidate suddenly energised. The reason: his respectable third-place showing, with 18 per cent, in the Iowa caucuses this week.

The Iowa results and the withdrawal from the race yesterday of Senator Phil Gramm has scrambled the field ahead of next Tuesday's critical first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire. Bob Dole is still the nominal front-runner here, but no one is placing bets on him.

By Mr Alexander's side yesterday was the towering figure of another former education secretary and conservative icon among many Republicans, William Bennett.

In a boost that should help with the right of the party, Mr Bennett formally endorsed Mr Alexander at a folksy press conference under the shelter of a bandstand in the centre of the Milford Oval.

For Mr Alexander, the Gramm withdrawal could mean an extra fillip. "Senator Gramm had a lot of financial support and a lot of popular support that is coming in my direction, especially in the South," he said.

According to the Alexander campaign's own polling research, the New Hampshire race has turned into a two-tier affair. It shows Mr Dole and Pat Buchanan, the conservative commentator, running neck- and-neck in front, with Mr Alexander and Steve Forbes, the magazine publisher, also tied at about eight points behind.

With the signs pointing to a further erosion of support for Mr Forbes, Mr Alexander's challenge is to set himself apart as being more mainstream than Mr Buchanan and more able, at the end of the day, than Mr Dole to beat President Clinton. "Bob Dole is a nice man and a good man, but he is not the man for the next century," he declared. Mr Bennett, in a grey woolly hat, echoed: "I don't think Dole really has any new ideas [whereas] Lamar has those ideas."

Supporters at the Milford event, many of them dressed in the Lamar plaid uniform, seemed to agree. "I think Alexander is the only one with the right character to beat Mr Clinton," argued Scott MacEwan, a retired engineer. "Bob Dole is a good guy, but I think he is just too old."

Just how new Mr Alexander's ideas are is open to question. He is, in essence, a moderate Republican of the old, George Bush school - tough on taxes, and less than strident on social issues.

Mr Dole, from much the same school himself, tried to deflect the age issue yesterday. Addressing a business breakfast in Nashua, about 20 miles south of here, he joked: "My blood pressure is lower than Mr Clinton's and my cholesterol is lower than Mr Clinton's. But I promise not to make health an issue in this campaign."

Mr Dole, who is haunted by 1988 when he won in Iowa but then lost badly to George Bush in New Hampshire, meanwhile targeted Mr Buchanan, in part by purloining some of the commentator's rhetoric contrasting the gains of corporate bosses and Dow Jones Index with the long-term decline in workers' wages.

The renewed promise for Mr Alexander was symbolised by his Milford appearance which was almost poetically reminiscent of the traditional legend of New Hampshire as the state for retail and hand-shaking politics.

As he squeezed into Hermi's New-York Style Deli for hot coffee and sandwiches, he excoriated the negative television campaigns of his rival. "After so many days of mud-slinging in Iowa the voters have had enough. They're going to vote 'yes' to new ideas and 'no' to mud-slinging."