The 64-year-old minister walked out of a town meeting held by Democratic presidential hopeful Wesley K. Clark on Thursday and promptly swiped a “Clark for President” sign.
“I’m lifting one,” said the Rev. Margaret Seymour as she tugged the stakes out of the frozen ground. “He just sold me.”
Seymour’s reaction is an increasingly common one in New Hampshire, as the Clark campaign shows signs of growing support less than three weeks before the state’s crucial primary on Jan. 27.
Howard Dean still holds a substantial lead, according to recent polls of likely primary voters. But his numbers have dipped and Clark’s have improved. Separately, a survey this week showed Clark gaining on Dean nationally -- the first significant movement for any candidate, other than the former Vermont governor, in months.
Dean’s perceived gaffes -- including sealing his Vermont gubernatorial records and now considering a middle-class tax cut after months of criticizing rivals for similar proposals -- appear to be taking a toll.
The missteps seem to have fueled doubts among many voters who like Dean but express concerns about how he would fare against President Bush in the general election. Clark also appears to have benefited from adding some potential drama to a Democratic fight that Dean had been dominating.
“It’s been such a static race for weeks and weeks that any motion seems like a big deal,” said Dante Scala, a political scientist at New Hampshire’s St. Anselm College. “In part, it’s kind of a classic case of media-aided momentum.”
Perhaps the surest sign of Clark’s improved standing is the reaction of his rivals. Dean and other Democratic contenders have begun attacking Clark directly, handing out leaflets critical of the retired Army general at his events and lambasting him in speeches. The Republican National Committee on Thursday issued a pair of statements assailing Clark.
Since few campaigns waste time attacking longshot candidates, Clark strategists are delighted to find themselves under fire. “It just got more fun,” said Jamal Simmons, a Clark spokesman.
Clark, who entered the race less than four months ago, is skipping the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses to focus on New Hampshire. He is hoping for at least a strong second-place showing in the primary to give him momentum heading into the series of contests on Feb. 3, mostly in Southern and Western states.
Having raised upwards of $10 million in the final quarter of 2003, second only to Dean’s roughly $15 million, his campaign is flooding New Hampshire airwaves with ads. It is also mailing to voters 50,000 copies of “American Son,” a flattering biopic made by filmmaker Linda Bloodworth Thompson, a longtime friend of President Clinton’s.
Crowds have grown substantially at Clark events, with many turning into standing-room-only affairs. At Concord High School Thursday night, more than 700 people showed up despite below-zero temperatures.
“I think there’s something to it,” political scientist J. Mark Wrighton said. “The race is tightening.”
But Wrighton, head of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said he was not convinced Clark’s support was coming at the expense of Dean’s. The bigger loser may be Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who has slipped into third place behind Clark in at least one opinion poll.
“I think Clark may be tapping into some residual angst over the war in Iraq but also beginning to appeal in other ways,” Wrighton said.
On Monday, Clark unveiled a sweeping tax reform proposal, a plan that would raise income taxes on millionaires and cut them for all families making less than $100,000.
On Thursday, he expanded on the plan, pledging to shut down corporate tax shelters and make it illegal for people to renounce their citizenship and leave the country in order to avoid paying taxes.
Joining Clark to announce his plan was Enron whistle-blower Sherron Watkins, who has become one of the country’s leading voices for corporate tax reform.
“Politics became personal to me because of the Enron scandal,” Watkins said. “I was so impressed with this man who had this long-term vision for America, for really paying attention to average Americans and what our needs were.”
Clark said his proposal would help the government collect some $10 billion that is currently lost to tax breaks. That money would then help pay for his proposed tax cuts to families making less than $100,000.
For weeks now, many in New Hampshire have been talking about a Dean primary win as an inevitability -- and the Dean campaign has done little to dissuade that perception. “There’s some political logic to that -- it generates money; it generates news coverage,” said Clark senior campaign strategist Chris Lehane. “But this is historically an independent-minded state, and people don’t really like to be told how they are going to vote before they vote.”
Clark’s decision to skip the Iowa caucuses is not without risk to him in New Hampshire. While the move has freed him to devote most of his time and advertising here, he could be overlooked when attention turns to the caucuses and its top finishers.
“The question is whether his money can overcome the momentum of whoever comes out of Iowa,” said Jenny Backus, a Democratic strategist who is neutral in the party’s nomination fight.
For now, many New Hampshire voters are clearly taking a close look at Clark -- and generally liking what they see.
After a gathering in the town of Keene earlier in the week, which drew some 800 people, three friends wandered out of the high school gymnasium.
Maureen Frazier, 54, said she wasn’t “totally convinced yet.” “I want more specifics,” she said.
Pat Stevenson, 56, said she, too, was not quite ready to sign on, but was intrigued. “He’s sharp,” she said.
John Schuster, 43, headed straight for a stack of Clark yard signs -- these placards meant for attendees. He took two.
“I’ve never worn a campaign button, never put a bumper sticker on my car,” he said. “I was impressed. And I feel like he’s the only one who really has a chance of defeating Bush.”