Does Wesley K. Clark have a second act?
The former NATO supreme allied commander burst into the Democratic presidential race in September as if he were storming a beach -- only to retreat amid confusion with his message, questions about his partisan loyalty and divisions in his campaign organization. Now he’s advancing again.
In several recent polls, Clark has moved into third place in New Hampshire, site of the critical first primary next month, with some surveys showing him within striking distance of Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts for second.
Clark has reorganized his staff, quickly built an impressive fundraising base and focused his message on his most distinctive asset -- his experience as a military leader in an election when national security could loom larger than in any presidential race since 1980.
“I’m the only person [in the Democratic field] who can stand toe-to-toe and challenge President Bush as a wartime leader,” the retired Army general said in an interview.
With Clark’s money and potential appeal in moderate Southern and Western states that highlight the primary calendar in February, some Democrats believe he may be the best-positioned to emerge as the alternative if front-runner Howard Dean stumbles.
“The more time passes, the more I am convinced this is the year of the outsider,” said Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist who served as Al Gore’s campaign manager in 2000. “The only possible candidate who can come in with the Dean sort of momentum is Gen. Clark.”
Yet Clark remains uneven as a candidate; he is often compelling but sometimes unsteady on the details of domestic policy. And many analysts believe he can emerge as a serious threat for the nomination only if he finishes within the top two in New Hampshire -- not an easy task when Kerry and Dean, the former governor of Vermont, both hail from neighboring states.
Clark, who is making his first bid for public office after a 34-year military career, remains a candidate defined as much by his potential as his actual performance.
“I see Clark as the wild card here,” said the campaign manager for another Democratic contender. “Does he become a real candidate or does he become a novelty? I don’t think we know the answer.”
When Clark entered the presidential race in September, his unique selling point seemed to be his ability to combine a critique of President Bush’s foreign policy and the war in Iraq, which could attract liberals, with national security credentials, which could appeal to more moderate voters.
Clark, who had defined himself as an opponent of the war, immediately sent his campaign into a tailspin by suggesting he would have voted for the congressional resolution authorizing Bush to invade Iraq.
But over the last several weeks, Clark has steadied a message that combines criticism of the war and detailed alternatives to Bush’s defense and foreign policies with the claim that he’s the only Democrat who can blunt the president’s advantages on national security issues.
In effect, Clark is arguing that he’s the one candidate who offers Democrats a chance to vote their hearts and their heads -- that he can express the antagonism most Democrats feel toward Bush’s policies and still have a realistic chance of winning in the fall.
When Clark appeared this month at the Florida Democratic Convention in Orlando, it was clear that argument was winning him a significant following in the state. More support was evident for Clark at the gathering than for any candidate except Dean. Almost all of those wearing Clark buttons said they backed him because they believed he had a better chance than the other contenders, especially Dean, to beat Bush.
“Dean is probably a bit too liberal” to beat Bush, said Kay Kariath of Tallahassee, Fla. “Clark can draw voters from the other side, and we’re going to need all the help we can get.”
Voters like Kariath help explain why Clark supporters are optimistic that he has regained his balance after stumbling out of the gate. Clark was hurt by revelations that he had praised Bush at a GOP fundraiser in 2001. Tensions between the volunteers who organized the Internet movement to draft him and the professionals he hired to staff his campaign complicated his problems.
Clark said the initial turbulence was unavoidable, given that his campaign started from scratch. “I never felt like I lost my footing,” he said. “We didn’t have a staff. We didn’t have the public affairs piece. We didn’t have the finance piece.... When you enter at this level, without a staff, it’s a leap of faith, and we survived it.”
Plenty of bugs were still evident in Clark’s Florida appearance. He let the enthusiasm among his supporters dissipate when he turned up 40 minutes late for a rally outside the convention center. Inside the hall, he engrossed the crowd, but then lost many with a lengthy speech that rambled.
Yet overall, Clark’s operation seems smoother. Buoyed by big donors who consider him the most viable general election candidate, Clark is raising money rapidly; his campaign estimates it will collect between $10 million to $12 million during the three-month period that ends Dec. 31. On Thursday, the campaign organized more than 700 house parties in 48 states to collect small donations.
Clark has been able to quickly expand his operations. In South Carolina, Oklahoma and Arizona -- the three marquee primaries on Feb. 3 -- his campaign is airing television advertisements. And while aides say it’s too early to tell which states will prove crucial if Clark’s candidacy is still viable after Feb. 3, the campaign has signaled its priorities by opening offices in Tennessee and Virginia, which vote on Feb. 10, and Wisconsin, which follows on Feb. 17.
Still, such advance planning may be of little help if Clark doesn’t get a big boost out of New Hampshire’s Jan. 27 primary. Demonstrating strength there is especially important for him because he decided to skip the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19.
Clark’s camp hopes that even a third-place showing in New Hampshire will ignite his campaign. The problem is that with Dean showing strength in so many places -- support sure to grow if he wins in Iowa and New Hampshire -- third place may not provide Clark with enough momentum to overcome the front-runner’s lead, especially in states outside the South.
“This is a campaign of unproven propositions from start to finish,” acknowledged one senior Clark advisor. “Can someone with no political experience run for president in the modern age? Can someone start this late with a field that started this early? [Is] a third-place finish ... enough of a ticket punch in New Hampshire to win the nomination?”
Clark’s campaign clearly recognizes New Hampshire’s importance. Clark has nearly 50 staffers in the state (far more than anyplace else), is planning to focus his time there in early January while the other contenders are in Iowa, and he has advertised heavily on its airways.
The recent surveys of likely Democratic voters in the state generally have found Dean polling 40% or more, Kerry about 20%, and Clark drawing from 10% to 13%.
Closing that gap with Kerry could be the key for Clark to emerge as a genuine threat for the nomination. But most observers agree it won’t be easy, especially with Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina intensifying their push for moderate voters.
“Clark got the easy votes to get to where he is,” said a strategist for another Democrat. “To get to 15% for him is tougher; to get to 20% is very difficult. He really needs Kerry to collapse utterly.”