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ON THE ELECTRONIC CAMPAIGN TRAIL GOV. ALEXANDER BEAMS POLITICAL MARKETING INTO THE NEW-MEDIA AGE

By Published on .

Jimmy Carter traveled the interstate highways for two years to campaign for the presidency. Now GOP hopeful Lamar Alexander is traveling the information highway for the same purpose.

Beginning in a recording studio that once was home to "Hee-Haw," the former Tennessee governor and Bush administration education secretary is now taking his message to the people via cable and satellite.

On the second Tuesday of every month, Gov. Alexander broadcasts a live, call-in talk show to more than 3,000 locations across the country. Viewers in venues from race tracks to town halls can ask questions via 800-number.

Like President Carter, Gov. Alexander is taking his message to the masses. But this time, computer networks, faxes and other delights of the electronic age are the marketing tools for politicians on the move.

"President Reagan built his political following in the '60s and '70s on radio and his [newspaper] columns, and Carter ran around Iowa, but this is different-this is a big meeting every month," Gov. Alexander said. "Many others who might run for president in 1996 are in Washington and spoiled by the free media, and perhaps they don't understand what we're doing here.

"Other people see this and think of it as a TV show that doesn't reach many people, but if you think of it as a big meeting, it's America's largest meeting every time we get together."

Since that first broadcast from the "Hee-Haw" stage in May 1993, the Republican Neighborhood Meeting, as it's called, has beamed out from Des Moines, Bedford, N.H., and other politically strategic sites, discussing topics ranging from jobs and education to government reform and the national economy. Gov. Alexander is usually joined by the appropriate local Republican politico-a senator, governor or congressman.

More than 600 cable systems offer the program, and the audiences at the 3,000 sites range from three to 300.

"If you're the George Washington University Republican club, you meet every second Tuesday and watch it, or maybe you have your own dish or have to go to a sports bar to watch it," Gov. Alexander said. "In Keene, N.H., there are 50 people who participate in the meeting every month from a race track where they use the dish and TV sets around the room."

Ironically, building the information superhighway is a pet project of Vice President Al Gore's. Now, a potential challenger is using it, and he may not be alone.

"It's an evolutionary process right now," said Democratic consultant Brian Lunde, partner in Lunde & Burger in McLean, Va. "In 1988, it was 800-numbers. In 1992, talk shows dominated the campaign. Now, we're moving to satellite," he said. "Candidates will not have to go very far to communicate" with the people.

There's little doubt Gov. Alexander will challenge for the 1996 GOP presidential nod; spokesman Kevin Phillips said "something drastic" would have to happen to preclude an Alexander candidacy.

And the governor himself is straightforward about his exploitation of the program for his personal aspirations.

"I started doing this for two reasons-to help define the Republican Party and to say what I'm for," he said. "A presidential candidate in 1996 should be thinking about building the party in 1993 and 1994, and this is my contribution. If I'm a candidate, it will also give me a chance to develop a political family and a financial network."

Callers and contributors to the network receive a regular newsletter, meaning their names are part of a valuable database that should prove its weight in gold during the 1996 campaign.

Although the cost of satellite time is minimal-about $1,200 for an hour-Gov. Alexander said the program to date has cost nearly $5 million, courtesy of the Republican Exchange Satellite Network, a non-profit organization set up by Gov. Alexander and another aspiring national politician, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson.

So far, Gov. Alexander isn't testing the waters of any other technologies, such as interactive polling, tactics his spokesman said could prove even more expensive.

The inspiration for the network and program came from Gov. Alexander's stint as secretary of education, where he established the America 2000 educational proposal.

"The question came up as to how we would stay in touch with different cities," he said. "So I went to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington once a month, picked out an educational goal, got Wal-Mart to loan interested citizens in communities their satellite receivers and their auditoriums."

The real beauty of the interactive town meetings, Gov. Alexander says, is their ability to give him a familiarity with an audience that otherwise might not be exposed to him or his ideas.

"This has been successful in both direct and indirect ways," Gov. Alexander said. "When I go to New Hampshire or Iowa or Texas, this gives me a framework in which to operate. I suddenly have reason to be there, to build neighborhood Republican meetings in those places. It's not to deliver a message to the masses, but it's more like a choir practice for party activists, for those who will be singing with me in the election."

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