Would You Give Money to This Man?

Politics and policy.
March 27 1999 3:30 AM

Would You Give Money to This Man?

Why does anyone contribute to Lamar Alexander's presidential campaign?

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"Other candidates may be sexier at this hour, but once we go through the battering of New Hampshire and Iowa it might be a different story," says Connors. "I think the subtext of this election will be, 'I will not embarrass you.' I know with absolute certainty that Lamar Alexander is without reproach."

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"The press will reveal things about candidates that otherwise would not be revealed," says Carole Sergent, a college classmate of Alexander's and godmother to one of his children. "There are no secrets with Lamar. But when people scrutinize and see what those front-runners are really about ..."

Because they are relying on a Bush fade, the contributors easily discount Lamar's dismal poll numbers. It's too early for the polls to mean anything, they say. Voters are probably still reacting to "that plaid shirt," says Tom Black, a Nashville software entrepreneur. The Alexandrians reject the polls in favor of a 1996 number: 3,500. The contributors repeat this figure as though it had talismanic power. If only Lamar had won 3,500 more votes in the 1996 New Hampshire primary, he would have edged Bob Dole for second, driven Dole out of the race, and cruised to the nomination. The 1996 near miss allows them to ignore the uglier facts of 2000: that Lamar faces a stronger field and has lower poll numbers.

The 17 contributors admire the doggedness that has made Alexander a figure of fun to the press. They call his nonstop campaigning since 1995 evidence of his persistence. "I don't think you should make fun of anyone who has a strong desire for public service. It takes hard work, and he will outwork all the others," says Brent Rice, a Kentucky real estate developer.

The endless campaign has "tested" him in ways that novice candidates such as Bush and Dole can't even imagine. Republicans believe in dues paying, say Lamar's supporters. Over and over, they remind me that the last Republican who won the presidency in his first campaign was Dwight Eisenhower. Reagan lost before he was nominated, as did George Bush and Richard Nixon.

The way the contributors figure it, Alexander is running against the other veteran candidates: Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes, and Quayle. By that calculus, I suppose, a contribution to Lamar is a great bet.

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