Alexander's Ragtime Band plays out of tune

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The Independent Online
RUPERT CORNWELL

North Conway, New Hampshire

An unusual name won't win your party's nomination for President, but it should help. For one thing, you can print placards with the oddly catchy first name, Lamar. You can also take the campaign trail with an ensemble called Alexander's Ragtime Band in which - if you're as accomplished a pianist as this particular candidate - you can actually play.

But there is more to the man than a name and a talent for music. He is engaging, energetic and competent, admired even among his foes for his two terms as governor of Tennessee and then as Education Secretary in the Bush administration. He has a good organisation, a decent message and a fair amount of money.

He's even walked across the state, clad in his trade-mark red and black plaid shirt to proclaim his affinity with the common man. Thus to the most baffling question of the 1996 campaign, four weeks before the crucial New Hampshire primary: Why is Lamar Alexander doing so badly?

The annual Lincoln Day dinner of the Republican Committee of Carroll County here is the stuff of traditional New Hampshire retail politics, a cattle market of candidates courting votes in what claims to be the most Republican county in the US, where no Democrat has been elected to local office in decades.

No matter that Conway is up north, in the mountains of moose country, and that the weather on Friday evening was straight out of Bram Stoker. These are events a campaigner misses at his peril, and Mr Alexander was there, working the room, shaking a hundred hands, explaining why he was the only Republican candidate who could beat Bill Clinton.

His case is plausible enough. He is conservative but not frighteningly so, sound on taxes and the balanced budget, with a Kennedyesque message of ''expecting less of Washington and more of ourselves''. Above all he is young and fresh, politely pressing his case that Bob Dole, the worthy but uninspiring frontrunner, is at the end of the day doomed to lose.

''I am a wake-up call,'' Mr Alexander warns, describing President Clinton as ''the best Democrat politician for 25 years'', a dazzling debater who for all his failings will not be beaten by a crusty baron of Congress mouthing old platitudes and stale ideas. ''Bob Dole, although we're deeply grateful for all you've done, you're not the right man to be the first President of the 21st century.'' But the applause is tepid, from an audience unconvinced that Mr Alexander is the solution.

Rather, the Republicans of Carroll County - and across the country - are waiting for something to happen. The millionaire publisher Steve Forbes may be the man of the hour, and his simple flat-tax message is especially potent in a state that is viscerally anti-tax and a maker and breaker of presidential contenders since Eisenhower. But few expect him to stay the course under the searing scrutiny that awaits the man who is the one 1996 novelty for a media that craves it.

''It was more exciting here a year ago, just after the 1994 election, when everyone thought Bill Clinton was finished,'' said Gerald Coogan, a North Conway real-estate consultant and Republican activist, surveying the savage TV ad war of which the campaign seems primarily to consist. ''Now things are stuck. Dole's not generating real enthusiasm. They're just beating each other up, and Clinton is going to get re-elected.''

This was not what Mr Alexander planned. Logically he should have been a prime beneficiary of the withdrawal from the race of Governor Pete Wilson of California, and of General Colin Powell's decision not to run. Instead, he is stuck in the 4 to 6 per cent range nationally - barely more than an opinion poll's ''statistical margin of error''. In New Hampshire, he is doing a percentage point or two better, but far behind Mr Dole and Mr Forbes, a solid second in every key primary state.

A candidate should have ''a certain incandescence'', Mr Alexander wrote in his 1988 book, Six Months Off. Eight years on, he is barely smouldering.

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