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Published: 10/1/2004

Winning campaign based on ideas would be a neat trick

BRIGHTON, Mich. - Bob Alexander, who is gamely running an enthusiastic long-shot campaign for Congress, turns 60 on Halloween.

And he really hopes that, two days later, the trick will be on Mike Rogers, the two-term incumbent who is regarded as perhaps the state GOP's rising young star, and a likely opponent for freshman U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) when she runs for re-election two years from now.

"Difficult? Yes," says Mr. Alexander, whose rich and reedy voice has echoes of his mother's Texas as well as his father's Grand Rapids.

Physically and politically, Mr. Alexander, a former teacher, legislative aide, and longtime state Medicaid official, resembles Jim Hightower, the Texas prairie populist turned radio star. "But I think with a strong finish by Kerry - and there is going to be one - I will be much closer than anybody thinks, and I only have to get one more vote than the congressman," he reminds people with a grin.

Four years ago, it would have been much easier to believe that could happen in Michigan's Eighth Congressional district, a sprawling expanse that begins in north Oakland County, takes in Howell and Brighton, and ends somewhere past Lansing. This was the closest race in the nation that year, and when the recount stopped the margin was 88 votes out of 300,000.

Since then redistricting has made it much more GOP-friendly, and Mr. Rogers coasted to a more than two-to-one margin two years ago over lawyer Frank McAlpine. Mr. Alexander, a Detroit-area native who now lives in East Lansing, was Mr. McAlpine's campaign manager that year.

This time, he thinks he - and the Democratic Party - have learned a thing or two about his opponent. He hopes to persuade the voters that "Mike Rogers, who likes to present himself as a moderate, is really far more conservative than this district, and is doing little to meet the needs of mid-Michigan."

Yet that's about as nasty as it gets. Bob Alexander doesn't hate Mike Rogers. In a recent interview, Mr. Rogers indicated healthy respect for his opponent. Mr. Alexander is, in fact, attempting to do a rare thing.

He is running a campaign based largely on ideas. His most interesting one is what he calls his "Rebuild America Plan," which would create a massive, $500 billion public works program to build the nation's crumbling infrastructure.

"This would put hundreds of thousands of Americans to work rebuilding our roads, or schools, water systems, other needed projects," said Mr. Alexander. How would he pay for this? "State and local governments and school systems would issue the bonds to finance the projects as they always do.

"But under my plan, the federal government would then be authorized to buy the bonds, which would pay zero interest. That would cut taxpayers' cost of borrowing in half. It would also create new, long-term high-paying Michigan jobs."

On most issues, Mr. Alexander, who originally supported Dennis Kucinich for the Democratic presidential nomination, is a traditional liberal. He'd like to see universal health care and more spending on education and the environment.

He was dead set against the war in the first place, would get the United States out of Iraq as soon as possible, and would transfer authority for rebuilding that nation to some combination of Iraqis and international groups.

Does he know the odds are against him? Of course. But he remembers what happened in 1964, when Barry Goldwater's campaign collapsed so thoroughly in Michigan that the Republican congressman in this very district was swept away, to his own astonishment - and that of his opponent.

What, I asked him, if he didn't win, but only made a respectable showing and forced Mike Rogers to address some major issues? Will all this hard work and personal expense have been worth it? Most politicians would just say flatly that they intended to win. But there is something refreshing about this one.

"If we raise some issues and get people talking? Absolutely worth it. If I get 40 percent, Kerry wins Michigan, and we'll gain a state legislative seat in Shiawassee County, and maybe one in north Oakland County.

"I've spent my whole life working in coalitions and helping get people involved who aren't normally involved," he said. "That's what I do."

I had to ask. What if the universe granted him the power to make the cosmic choice: This year he could either choose to win an upset victory for Congress - or could choose to lose and have John Kerry elected president.

He doesn't hesitate a second. "Kerry. That's much more important."

One thing is clear:

Whatever you think about Bob Alexander's politics, there are still men running for office who put principle over their precious careers.



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