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POLITICAL NOTEBOOK: Clinton Aides Ponder Alexander as Opponent

February 14, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Meddling in Republican politics, President Clinton’s political team suggested Tuesday that a nomination of Lamar Alexander could help the president defuse Whitewater as an election issue.

Clinton’s advisers have long said Alexander’s moderate credentials would make the former Tennessee governor a formidable foe. But his surprise third-place finish in Iowa’s caucuses prompted a tougher assessment.

One White House official, recalling with bitterness the media probing that nearly crippled Clinton’s 1992 campaign, said press attention would hurt Alexander.

Four presidential advisers said in separate interviews that Alexander’s financial history would be a problem for him in a general election. One senior aide even suggested that Clinton’s major hurdle to re-election _ questions about his integrity and past business dealings _ might be balanced by Alexander’s business history, if he were nominated.

The aides pointed to reports regarding large sums of money Alexander made while serving as Tennessee’s governor.

The official White House position was to avoid comment about the Republican caucuses. Clinton preferred to talk about the 50,000 Iowans who showed up for the Democratic caucuses, in which he was unopposed.

``I was stunned,″ he said. The turnout showed Iowa’s ``support for the positive direction in which we’re taking their country. ... That’s the most rewarding thing of all.″

But political advisers inside and outside the White House were busy discounting Alexander’s surge. They repeatedly mentioned his business dealings.

In one deal, Alexander made more than $620,000 selling newspaper stock he had obtained at no cost while in the governor’s office. In another, his wife, Honey, paid $10,000 for stock in a communications company Alexander had worked with before becoming University of Tennessee president, then sold the stock back to the company’s founder for $330,000.

While Alexander’s business deals may be fodder for his political opponents, Alexander has not been accused of any illegal activity.

Pat Buchanan, who finished second in Iowa, is considered a good foil by the White House team, a candidate they think Clinton could easily demonize. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole is still the man Clinton expects to face.

As for Alexander, the president’s supporters also said he was benefiting from his relative anonymity, which is an asset with a cynical electorate.

``But this can’t last while the spotlight is focusing on him,″ said Democratic consultant and Clinton supporter Paul Begala, who is no longer part of the president’s inner circle.

``If it’s his turn in the barrel,″ Begala said with a touch of irony, ``I wish him the best.″

___

Steve Forbes’ last-minute cancellation of a dinner and speech Tuesday night has some residents muttering ``chicken.″

``This is not the way to win the voters,″ said Kelly Nickerson, president of the Wolfeboro, N.H., Rotary Club. ``I understand there are about 175 stuffed chickens still sitting there waiting for an event to go off.″

She said the club planned to salvage the evening by holding a straw poll for the Republican presidential race. New Hampshire holds the first-in-the-nation primary Feb. 20.

Forbes traveled Tuesday to his hometown of Bedminster, N.J., where he discussed strategy with campaign aides after his fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses.

___

After watching the cutthroat campaigning that preceded the Iowa caucuses, House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Tuesday he’s glad to be a bystander rather than a contender _ and a target _ in the ’96 presidential race.

After Republican rivals blasted each other for weeks with negative campaign ads, the caucuses Monday failed to yield a lock on the GOP nomination for any candidate, Gingrich said in Smyrna, Ga.

``I felt a profound relief I wasn’t running,″ Gingrich said. ``Nothing in the last two weeks has made me think that was very much fun.″

Still, he hinted that the in-party sniping during the primaries should whip into shape a formidable Republican nominee capable of defeating President Clinton.

``If somebody isn’t tough enough or clever enough to get through the primaries and be nominated, you sure don’t want them up against Bill Clinton in the fall,″ Gingrich said.

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