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The opening salvo of the presidential primary season has been fired by Republican hopeful Lamar Alexander, and we can offer good news: It relies on none of the poisonous, but penetrating, tactics we've come to expect over the past few national campaigns. Alexander has taken the high road, filling his 60-second spot merely with every benign cliche of the genre (italicized below for your convenience).

"The experts said he'd never win," the voice-over intones about the scrappy underdog, "then he walked 1,000 miles across his state bringing people together, and became the governor who cleaned up corruption in Tennessee. Lamar Alexander. A record from outside Washington. A conservative governor who balanced eight budgets. Kept taxes the fifth lowest of any state. Reformed education. Brought in the auto industry, with Saturn, and later helped found a new business that now has 1,200 employees. Lamar Alexander: governor, businessman, education secretary. A Republican running for president from the real world.

"I'm coming to New Hampshire this summer," the shirtsleeved Alexander himself tells us, looking almost straight into the camera, "to get to know you. Because the answer to our problems isn't in Washington, D.C. The answer is in our churches, families, neighborhoods and schools. It's about growth and jobs, freedom from big government and a lot more personal responsibility.

"I'm Lamar Alexander. Let's get to know each other, and then let's get about the business of helping America aim for the top."

He is being a bit disingenuous, of course, because Alexander is not going to New Hampshire to get to know voters. He is going for voters to get to know him. In fact, he plans to reprise his Tennessee gesture and walk 80 miles from Concord to the sea, whereupon, if he thinks he's going to create a mystique, judging from this commercial, he may as well keep walking.

Alexander commences his TV campaign a little short in the personality department.

It has been said of the former Tennessee governor that he is too lackluster, too vanilla to get any attention from the press and the electorate. This is an outrageous characterization. The man is not vanilla, the man is albumen. Next to the Lamar Alexander we see here, Arlen Specter and Richard Lugar look like Jim Carrey and Charo.

In this odd presidential cycle, in which any Republican in the U.S. could easily knock off Bill Clinton, except those who have chosen to run, Alexander apparently is asking us to view the presidency not as a political and governmental position but rather as the nation's moral center. Well, I've studied Churchill. I've studied Gandhi. And, Governor, you're no Jimmy Carter.

Even Carter, who committed political suicide trying to establish his moral leadership, had the sense to become president before trying to be the Nation's Pastor.

Though talk of smaller government, community values and personal responsibility does resonate with voters, so far the Murphy Pintak Gautier Agency, McLean, Va., has failed to make Alexander's take on these goals stand out among other Republican candidates. Or Democrats, for that matter.

Alexander walked across Tennessee and he's fixing to walk across New Hampshire. But if he can't find something unique-or at least charismatic-to say, soon the non-benign likes of Robert Dole and Phil Gramm will be walking over him.M

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