DES MOINES, IA - FEBRUARY 12: Republican presidential candidate Lamar Alexander waves to supporters as he leaves a local sandwich shop after a campaign stop 12 February in Des Moines, Iowa. Iowa caucus voting will take place later in the evening. JOHN RUTHROFF—AFP/Getty Images
JOHN RUTHROFF—AFP/Getty Images
By Maya Rhodan
February 4, 2016

Sen. Lamar Alexander isn’t ready to endorse a candidate in the 2016 election, but he does have some revealing thoughts on the state of the race.

He should know: the Tennessee Republican ran twice himself. The former Governor and U.S. Secretary of Education withdrew from the 1996 race for the presidency after finishing third in both the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. Alexander attempted another unsuccessful run in 1999.

In a conversation with TIME, Alexander did not mention his colleagues who are running, Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio—who came in first and third, respectively, in the Iowa caucuses—saying his constituents in Tennessee probably wouldn’t want him sticking his nose in the race this early. But he did predict there would likely be “three or four” candidates left to duke it out following next week’s New Hampshire primary.

“I don’t know how New Hampshire will come out, but I expect that the old rule of three out of Iowa and two out of New Hampshire will be broken,” Alexander said, It’ll be 3 out of Iowa and maybe 3 or 4 out of New Hampshire.”

Alexander is referencing a phrase popular among political pundits that dates back to the early days of the Iowa caucuses, according to Professor Rachel Caufield at Iowa’s Drake University. Though not every Republican presidential nominee has won Iowa, one of the top-three choices in the Hawkeye state has gone on to win the nomination, even among the exceptions.

That would seem to limit the race to Cruz, Rubio or Republican business mogul Donald Trump. So Alexander’s comments leave open the possibility that he’s rooting for another candidate, perhaps another governor, such as New Jersey’s Chris Christie or Ohio’s John Kasich, or maybe former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose “Jeb!” slogan recalls his own “Lamar!” posters.

The chairman of the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions said this Saturday’s upcoming debate will be an interesting addition to the contest. (“We didn’t have that 20 years ago,” he said). Overall, he believes that, for now, having more candidates with their hats in the ring is a good thing. “I think that’s good for the country and can give us more alternatives, “Alexander said. “And I think most American would like to see more alternatives. “

Having been there, he’s also got a bit of advice for the candidates as they head into next week’s primary.

“What I learned is that a good third place finish in Iowa will give you a bump in New Hampshire,” Alexander said. “Just how big a bump we’ll know by next week.”

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