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Federal File: Thomas retires; Alexander garners votes--and flak

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The Education Department's longtime inspector general, who had been with the agency since its inception, recently retired from federal service.

James B. Thomas, who turns 60 this week, stepped down as inspector general on March 3. In that job, he oversaw efforts to curb waste, fraud, and abuse in federal programs.

Over the past several years, most of the investigations conducted by Mr. Thomas's office focused on student-aid programs, and particularly on for-profit trade schools.

He is returning to his native Florida to become the chief inspector general for Gov. Lawton Chiles.

As the department searches for a replacement, Gretchen C. Schwarz, Mr. Thomas's deputy, will serve as the acting inspector general.

In a straw poll of about 1,200 South Carolina Republicans conducted last week, former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander placed a strong second among 1996 G.O.P. Presidential hopefuls.

Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Tex., led all candidates with the support of 35 percent of those voting. Mr. Alexander, who recently announced his candidacy, garnered 26 percent of the vote.

"I did better than I expected, better than probably anyone in the world expected," Mr. Alexander, a former Tennessee Governor and University of Tennessee president, was quoted as saying by The Washington Post.

Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., the Senate majority leader, finished third with 21 percent of the vote. Mr. Dole, who has said he will announce his candidacy next month, did not attend the event.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee Democratic Party had some harsh words for Mr. Alexander, who has portrayed himself as the only "Washington outsider" among the three major G.O.P. candidates.

A news release said the former Secretary "has built a career around remolding and repackaging his image."

"Alexander has a right to run for office, but he ought to be ashamed of himself for trying to mislead voters into thinking he's something he's not," said Will T. Cheek, the state Democratic Party chairman. "Alexander plays Washington insider when he thinks it's in his political advantage. Now, he wants to use the label of 'outsider' with the same motives."

--Mark Pitsch

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