HAMPTON, N.H. - Lamar Alexander considers himself the lifeboat in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
As the metaphor goes, Mr. Alexander's inconspicuous campaign floats quietly, distantly behind the weathered warship of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and the luxury yacht of magazine magnate Steve Forbes.
The two larger vessels, he believes, are on a collision course and destined to sink. When that happens, Republican voters will leap for the Alexander lifeboat and paddle it all the way to the White House.
"I am the only candidate who can beat Bill Clinton," Mr. Alexander tells an audience of about 30 supporters during a cozy, fireside campaign stop at Lamie's Inn here. "I am our best hope. I think the people of New Hampshire and Iowa will see that once they focus on this race."
It is the strategy of a man who began campaigning earlier than anyone else and decided to walk across this first-in-the-nation primary to spread his message of power-to-the-people conservatism. Along the way, he repeats a snappy campaign mantra.
"Remember your ABCs," he tells every group. "Alexander Beats Clinton."
It's an audacious pitch, considering Mr. Alexander is running a consistent fifth in polls here and in Iowa.
Mr. Forbes has usurped Mr. Alexander's claim to the purified Washington outsider inveighing against the capital city's wanton hypocrisy. He's also hogged the media spotlight with his bottomless campaign war chest.
Mr. Forbes and Mr. Dole are fully engaged as they battle for first place in New Hampshire. Mr. Forbes, who is expected to spend roughly $20 million of his own money on the campaign, has launched an advertising blitz pitting his flat-tax plan and his Washington outsidership against Mr. Dole's 35-year career as a member of the political establishment.
Mr. Dole in recent weeks has fired back with advertisements attacking Mr. Forbes "untested" and "risky ideas."
Mr. Alexander's now-you-see-them-now-you-don't press corps pales in comparison with the hundreds of reporters and photographers who mob front-runner Bob Dole and Mr. Forbes.
Surveys in New Hampshire and Iowa give Mr. Alexander respectable favorability ratings, but he has yet to break into double digits when it comes to voter preferences.
Mr. Alexander is a patient man, his allies say. That's fortunate beacuse waiting for a spark is his only choice - besides quitting.
"The time will come when there's going to be an opening," Mr. Alexander said in a recent interview. "And then I will run straight up the middle."
Waiting for the other ships to sink is a passive strategy uncharacteristic of Mr. Alexander's campaign staff. Three of his top lieutenants - chief consultant Mike Murphy, press secretary Mark Merritt and communications director Dan McLagan - directed the maverick 1994 Senate campaign of Oliver L. North, who fell 3 points short of unseating Sen. Charles S. Robb, Virginia Democrat.
Forcing the opponent to react was the name of the game in that contest, and the operatives considered themselves failures if they did not react to Mr. Robb 48 hours before the Democrat uttered a word.
But in this race, the candidates ahead of Mr. Alexander largely ignore him, so there is little to respond to pre-emptively.
"Lamar frequently runs best when he's behind because he stays on message," said John Gnuschke, an economics professor at the University of Memphis who worked with Tennessee Gov. Alexander on a job creation project in the mid 1980s. "When it becomes evident that the other candidates have issues that will sink them, people will see that he carries the best chance of winning the general election."
"His strength is that he is the most focused individual I know," said Bill Gibbons, who during Mr. Alexander's tenure served as the …