KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ Lamar Alexander, who not long ago called Sen. Bob Dole a man with ``no ideas,'' Friday put on a Dole button and told the GOP front-runner he has no reservations about Dole's carrying the party's presidential banner.

``I know the difference between fighting the good fight and ignoring reality,'' the former Tennessee governor said. ``I'm proud to call him my friend and I'll be prouder to call him my president.''

Dole praised Alexander for backing out of the GOP race earlier in the week and endorsing him, then called on remaining rivals Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes to do the same.

``I think it's time for our party to close ranks now. Lamar has set the example. Our political target is not each other. It is Bill Clinton. And we need to defeat Bill Clinton in November,'' Dole said at a rally at an airport hotel.

Earlier, during a campaign stop in Florida, Dole declared himself the sure GOP nominee and suggested his rivals' attacks were temporarily helping President Clinton's ``head start.''

Alexander told former supporters at a rally that, throughout his campaign, he had asked voters whom they wanted to face Clinton in November and lead the country in the next century.

``I asked that question: Is Bob Dole the man you want? And the answer came back in primary after primary: Yes, he's the man we want.''

Alexander, whose third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses was his high-water mark, gave Dole one of his trademark red-and-black plaid campaign shirts.

Alexander was on the tarmac as Dole's gleaming white campaign jet rolled to a stop. Sporting his new Dole button, he greeted the Senate majority leader with a firm handshake.

Dole and Alexander were campaigning together in Memphis later in the day.

Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, a Republican who ran for the GOP nomination in 1984, shared a platform with Dole, Alexander and Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist. Baker joked that he hoped it was the last time he'd have to see an Alexander shirt.

Dole, with more than a third of the 996 convention delegates he needs for the GOP nomination already under his belt, skipped a candidates' debate in Dallas, which he ridiculed, to campaign with Alexander.

Earlier, campaigning in Florida, Dole made a pointed appeal to Buchanan and Forbes to withdraw from the race, citing his most recent convert _ minor GOP candidate Morry Taylor, an Illinois businessman, who dropped out and endorse him Friday.

``It would be a lot better if we were all together,'' Dole said. At one point, he called himself the ``presumptive nominee'' of the party, but later said that perhaps shouldn't make such a claim so early.

Talking with reporters after the morning rally, Dole conceded the unlikelihood that either Buchanan or Forbes would drop out any time soon. ``Forbes has money and Buchanan has rhetoric. I don't know how long they'll last,'' he said.

He forecast a lock on the nomination, if not after the Super Tuesday races next week, then after the big Midwestern contests that come the following week.

``It doesn't do any good'' for GOP chances of winning in November for the two other candidates ``to be out there bashing me,'' Dole said.

``My view is we ought to be concentrating on President Clinton. He's got a head start, he's out there, got $25 million to spend. But I can't make the decisions for the other candidates.''