Former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander finished third among contenders for the 1996 GOP presidential nomination in the recent Florida Republican straw poll.
He received 23 percent of more than 3,000 ballots cast, just 3 percentage points behind Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who has been viewed as the primary competition for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas. Mr. Dole topped all candidates with 33 percent, a showing most pundits said did not allow him to decisively break away from the pack.
Before the poll, the Alexander camp suggested the former secretary could finish second. Later, he said he was satisfied with his strong third-place finish.
The nine announced GOP candidates took part in a two-hour debate televised on CNN's "Larry King Live" prior to the Nov. 18 straw poll.
Mr. Alexander, who has been the governor of Tennessee and a university president as well as education secretary under President Bush, was chastised by some of his rivals for portraying himself as a Washington outsider who would shift power from the federal government to the states should he be elected president. He repeatedly referred to some of his opponents as "the Washington senators."
"We are supposed to be the party of local government, and you're forgetting that in Washington, D.C.," Mr. Alexander said, raising the ire of his opponents.
"Simply running against Washington is a gimmick," said Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana. "It has ... nothing to do with this campaign."
"What we're looking for is quality of ideas, quality of character and judgment," he said. "That may be found in Washington, it may be found elsewhere around the country."
Mr. Dole noted that Mr. Alexander raised the budget of the Department of Education by some 40 percent during his tenure there, although he is now calling for closing down the agency.
Mr. Alexander criticized Mr. Gramm for having voted for a law that prevents possession of a handgun within 1,000 feet of a school. The law has since been declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. (See Education Week, May 3, 1995.)
Mr. Gramm replied, "I'm willing to have the federal government help the states to keep guns and drugs out of our schools."