LAMAR ALEXANDER He's Traversed America on a Campaign to Meet 'Real People'; but the Moderate Tennessean Has Found Few Followers Series: THE '96 CAMPAIGN. Part 6 in a Series on the Republican Presidential Candidates. First of 3 Articles Appearing Today

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NINETEEN seventy-eight was the year when Lamar Alexander first discovered the political power of flannel.

The young, ambitious lawyer was running hard for governor of Tennessee and had grown weary of the usual politicos and party fund-raisers. So he ditched old campaign methods, slipped on a red-and-black lumberjack shirt, khakis, and broken-in boots, and hiked 1,000 miles, crisscrossing the state from Memphis to Knoxville.

Mr. Alexander's aim, he said, was to meet "real" people, tell them who he was, and hear their solutions to problems. It worked - spectacularly. After two popular tours in the Tennessee statehouse, Alexander earned a reputation as a rising Republican star. President Bush brought him to Washington as secretary of education.

So when Alexander launched his own bid for the presidency a year ago, it seemed only natural that he begin by pounding the pavement. This time it's New Hampshire voters who've seen him amble up to their farmhouses and saunter around their historic town commons, all the while dressed like an ad for L.L. Bean.

But Alexander has encountered only tepid support in early primary states. When he ends a 100-mile trek from Concord, N.H., to the Granite State coast on Feb. 19, the gathering is likely to be small. Most of the state will be inside by the fire, watching Forbes's TV ads.

Magazine publisher Steve Forbes, a political neophyte, has preempted Alexander's hoped-for image as the race's Mr. Outsider. Media interest in other issues, from Gen. Colin Powell's not-quite campaign to budget wrangling in Washington, has kept Alexander and other second-tier candidates off the evening news, making it difficult to build crucial name recognition.

Though he was among the first to crank up his campaign and float his image on TV, Alexander remains back in the pack with only weeks to go until the nation's first primary here.

For the self-proclaimed Washington outsider noted for his tenacity and not completely discounted by observers yet, the next few weeks may reveal if the optimism and hope of his stump speeches can finally be translated into votes.

Tom Rath, a New Hampshire strategist on Alexander's side, remains warily confident. "Early on, there was an internal decision to stick to the plan and not panic. This campaign, if it was ever going to be successful, was going to be successful at the end," he says.

Alexander insists he's the only candidate who can beat President Clinton and would solve the country's problems by shipping authority back to the states.

"I would like to be the president that leads us into the next century expecting less from Washington and more of ourselves," he offers.

He uses his experience as governor - "I believe I'm the only one running for president who's ever balanced {a budget}" - and as a businessman to set himself apart from GOP rivals. "Every politician ought to be sentenced to try to live and work under the rules set up while in office," he says, referring to a day-care business he started after serving as governor.

Alexander supports tax reform that includes cutting rates on income, capital gains, and inheritance, while keeping deductions for charitable donations and home mortgages. He weighs in on the flat-tax debate by calling it "a nutty idea in the Jerry Brown tradition."

Education is one of the cornerstones of his platform. Alexander draws on his experience as University of Tennessee president and US secretary of education when he calls for school choice and privatization. He proposes to close the Education Department he once led.

But Alexander's overarching message is the need to reduce the power of the federal government. Though he says he opposes abortion and gun control, his belief that states should address these issues is so strong that he would not support federal legislation on them. "We know what to do," he says of local politicians, and referring to the name of his newest book. …