YOU REALLY DON'T WANT TO HEAR about this, and I don't blame you, but Lamar Alexander was in Washington last week, less than two weeks after Election Day. The former governor and presidential candidate was making the rounds, giving speeches, granting interviews, meeting with former and future political and financial supporters. What he was doing, in other words, was running for president. And he is not alone. Steve Forbes, Dan Quayle, Jack Kemp, Phil Gramm, and others are gearing up, dipping their toes in the water, sniffing the winds, preparing their hats to toss in the ring, and causing a trainwreck, a tornado, of mixed metaphors. They're not giving themselves a break, and worse, they're not giving us a break, either. You might say that the race is on even before Bob Dole's body is cold, except Bob Dole's body was never warm.

Normal people may think Election Day was twenty days ago, but for the presidential professional Election Day is actually 1,400 days from now. There is no time to waste. Within days of Dole's defeat Phil Gramm was making calls to supporters in Iowa -- "just checking in," as one put it -- and to "money men" throughout the South. Steve Forbes was launching a new "message tank," as opposed to think tank, called "Americans for [prepare yourself] Hope, Growth and Opportunity." Dan Quayle was hosting an evening reception in Washington for House Republican freshmen and sophomores to talk about, you know, the congressional agenda.

What they prefer not to talk about, however -- at least for the record -- is 2000. Even the presidential pros realize it might seem a bit vulgar at so early a date, and for this we can at least be grateful. Lamar Alexander has been more candid than most. On November 6, while Dole slept it off in his Watergate apartment and his campaign staffers were packing boxes back at headquarters, Lamar was up early, placing two long-planned conference calls, one to political supporters, the other to financial supporters. Inquiries were made to old staffers to see whether they will once again Come On Along!

"I'm very likely to be a candidate," he confessed to the Memphis Commercial Appeal the next day. In case anybody missed it, Alexander immediately mailed a copy of this Commercial Appeal story to all his supporters. And suddenly -- mysteriously! -- bumperstickers began appearing in New Hampshire that bore Alexander's trademark plaid and the legend: 2000! (exclamation point in the original).

Alexander has good reason to move quickly. The Great Mentioner is even now mentioning his fellow Tennessean, Sen. Fred Thompson, as a possible presidential contender for 2000. Thompson was reelected on November 5 with 61 percent of the vote. An RNC official from Memphis told the Commercial Appeal, "Alexander has a base of support. The problem he faces is that Fred Thompson is frankly much more charismatic." (More charismatic than Lamar Alexander?) Tennessee, though a perfectly fine state in many respects, probably isn't rich enough to support two presidential candidates -- or three, assuming Al Gore makes a run. With his early telephoning, Alexander hopes to freeze in place any financial backers who might otherwise be seduced by the Thompson come-hither. (The stakes are high. In a list of the ten most generous zip codes for campaign donations in 1996, three were in Nashville -- all of them milked by Alexander till they mooed with pain.)

It may seem ludicrous that the 2000 campaign is already underway, but the reality is more ludicrous still: The 2000 campaign has been underway for months. It was merely disguised as the 1996 campaign. You will be further shocked to discover that many of the potential Republican candidates concentrated their post-convention work in New Hampshire and Iowa. Alexander, Quayle, Kemp, and Forbes all found reason to travel there -- Alexander even campaigned for members of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, of whom there are 400, roughly half the population of the state. For his part, Forbes traveled to more than 40 states from July to November, attended 430 individual events, and did 760 interviews, on behalf of other Republican candidates. And each of those candidates, win or lose, received a call from Forbes himself the day after the election. Just checking in.

But no one was a more selfless campaigner than Quayle. "He worked his tail off -- especially in the South," says one southern GOP operative. "He's got chits everywhere." And he was just as tireless on Wednesday, November 6, phoning every House freshman with congratulations or condolences. Through his political action committee, Campaign America, Quayle donated money to candidates, as did Alexander through his PAC, the Republican Fund for the '90s. Soon there will be many Republican funds for the '90s. Kemp has told colleagues that he'll start up a PAC; so too Forbes, so too Gramm. If they don't move quick, all the good names will be taken.

But what, you probably weren't going to ask, about Pat Buchanan? Characteristically, Buchanan is going his own way. Former aides assume he'll try again in 2000 -- he too campaigned widely and selflessly this fall -- but since November 5 he's been holed up in the basement of his Virginia home, writing a book about the history of American foreign and trade policy. It's a bizarre image: a potential presidential candidate, hunched in front of a word processor, surrounded by scholarly books, writing a manifesto to clarify his thinking on the great issues of American history. What a loser.

by Andrew Ferguson

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