A Tale of Two Candidates' Campaigns Lamar Alexander with Trademark Flannel Shirt, and Arlen Specter with Accompanying Charts, Wend Their Way through Granite State Politics

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IT'S a bit after 1 p.m. on a Friday afternoon in Manchester, N.H. Republican presidential candidate Lamar Alexander is meeting with about 250 students crammed into a double-sized classroom at Memorial High School.

Along a side wall, a few reporters and photographers are recording the event -- including, most importantly, WMUR-TV, New Hampshire's major television station. Behind the former Tennessee governor, an interpreter for the deaf is signing his talk.

It is a typical day this time of quadrennial year for New Hampshire, a time when presidential candidates are as prevalent in the state as taps on maple trees. Their presence highlights both the importance of New Hampshire in electing the next president as well as the one-on-one touch residents get more than in any other state.

A recent day in the life of two GOP contenders -- former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander and Sen. Arlen Specter, both well back in the polls -- tells something about the culture of campaigning Granite State-style, and the messages candidates are conveying.

Mr. Alexander, in suit and tie, introduces himself to the students. He has already raised $6 million of the $20 million he figures he'll need to campaign effectively. But he's not a familiar face yet, he jokes: His red-and-black flannel shirt is better known than he.

The former Tennessee governor launches into his message: "The next president, the person we elect next year will be sitting in the Oval Office in the White House on the first day of the year 2000.... I think the major purpose of the president will be to help us recapture our confidence in the future."

The country needs to concentrate on new-job growth, Alexander says, and move as much decisionmaking as possible out of Washington -- especially in education, law enforcement, and welfare. He says Congress should meet six months and spend the rest of the year in districts.

"I'd like to focus on personal responsibility," Alexander says. "The Republican Party tried to talk about personal responsibility in 1992, but we didn't do a very good job of it.... We all know that most of the problems that worry us have to do with the breakdown of the family, the neighborhood, the church, and the school."

By now the room has become a sauna. The students pepper him with questions, but are always respectful. He says he'd set aside Social Security and balance the rest of the budget, including Medicare, first. He opposes Sen. Richard Lugar's proposal for a national retail sales tax because sales taxes should be a state tool and the tax would be too easy to increase.

A young man asks about abortion. "I believe abortion is wrong," Alexander says. The federal government should stay out of the issue and leave it to the states.

Would he eliminate the Department of Education? Yes, but what isn't turned over to the states should go to other federal agencies. He'd keep the college loan program and university research.

More questions: Alexander would stop the "free-fall" in defense spending. He thinks the House GOP crime bill calls for too much federal interference in state and local issues; so does the welfare-reform package. Drugs? The government should do everything it can to limit the supply. But "you must do something in your own neighborhoods. …