By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 9/23/2003 4:30:01 AM ET 2003-09-23T08:30:01

Some political pros in New Hampshire think it is too late for retired four-star Gen. Wesley Clark to deploy an organization and win the state’s presidential primary next January. History proves them wrong, says Clark adviser and former Democratic Party State Chairman George Bruno who was at Bill Clinton’s side in New Hampshire in 1992 as Clinton weathered the storm over draft dodging and his dalliance with chanteuse Gennifer Flowers.

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“I stood alongside Clinton in those dark days … it looked like his candidacy was headed off the cliff, but we pulled it back,” Bruno recalled in an interview in his Manchester, N.H., office.

Clinton finished second to former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, regaining his momentum to the Democratic nomination.

Bruno was one of the first New Hampshire politicos that Clinton approached when he decided to run for president. Clinton recruited him in August 1991 in a Los Angeles hotel room. The Arkansas governor did not pay his first visit as a candidate to New Hampshire until Oct. 6, 1991.

In 1994, Clinton appointed Bruno ambassador to Belize. That’s where Bruno met Clark when the general was head of Southern Command.

OVERCOMING SECURITY QUESTIONS

“The most serious issue facing the American people is the economy,” Bruno said, but “we can’t have a discussion about very serious domestic issues unless we have a candidate that surmounts the national security issues. Wes Clark satisfies the national security questions that many people have about Democrats.”

Now Bruno is helping Clark get to know New Hampshire voters, with the ex-general slated to visit the state this weekend, beating Clinton’s 1991 schedule by 11 days.

(Asked whether Clinton had encouraged him to work for Clark, Bruno said, “I haven’t spoken to President Clinton in a year.”)

For Bruno in some ways this is Clinton 1991 all over again. “So far, the Clark campaign is tracking the organization of the Clinton campaign more than 10 years ago. It starts with an initial trip, the arrival of advance people, and the focus on the candidate’s arrival and in the wake of that, setting up an organization.

“The Clark campaign at this point doesn’t have the name recognition that other campaigns have, it doesn’t have the organization, it is under-funded, and it is late,” Bruno acknowledged. “But in spite of all those drawbacks, it has a compelling message and an air of excitement about it fueled by a groundswell of Draft Clark supporters all over the country and a hunger by the American people for new leadership.”

Bruno said polls indicate that voters want an alternative to former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and the other already active contenders. Clark’s surge to the front of the Democratic pack in Newsweek and USAToday national polls this week appears to underscore that notion.

“Between 60 to 70 percent of the vote is divided among the other nine candidates and between 30 and 40 percent of the vote is undecided. These are the ingredients for a Clark candidacy,” he said.

The early candidates “have corralled a lot of the activists,” Bruno said, but “voters in this state are still in a wait-and-listen mode.”

Clark has visited New Hampshire over the past few years to speak at a national security forum organized by Bruno immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and in October 2002 to campaign for Democratic House candidate Katrina Swett.

But Clark hasn’t put in the face time at the dozens of town hall meetings, coffee klatches, and house parties that other Democratic contenders have.

In his book “Waging Modern War,” Clark cites Napoleon’s adage that “God is on the side of the big battalions,” and right now it is Dean and Kerry who have deployed the big battalions of field operatives in New Hampshire. Clark needs to get dozens of “boots on the ground” quickly to exploit the excitement of his launch last week.

Clark has had the initial advantage of appearing on the cover of Newsweek and being the talk of the town on talk radio stations here in New England.

“I knew the media coverage of Clark had reached a saturation point when I woke up this morning and I had been dreaming about Wesley Clark,” laughed New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairwoman Kathy Sullivan, who is remaining neutral in the race.

Asked to handicap Clark’s chances, Sullivan said, “He’s got to put together an organization, he’s got to come up here, start meeting people, raising money, he’s got to start doing everything the other candidates have been doing for the last six or 12 months. So it’s a very compressed schedule. It’s formidable. But the American military has always been well known for its ability to move quickly, for supply and logistics.”

CONTRADICTIONS ON IRAQ

Bruno said the contradictory statements Clark made last week about whether he’d have voted for the congressional resolution authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq were simply “part of the learning process. That’s the beauty of New Hampshire primary and the Iowa caucuses. They provide a platform for candidates to come here early, make those mistakes, test out their themes, refine their stump speech, and then when the New Hampshire primary happens, to be introduced to the nation as a full-blown candidate.”

Bruno said that in Clark’s case “late entry in the race provides him with a little less cover than he might ordinarily have. But I think the American people will give him some grace, let him go through a shakedown period. He’s going to make some early mistakes, but as the campaign proceeds he will become a stronger candidate.”

While Clinton in 1993 scored a “comeback win” by finishing second to Tsongas, Bruno’s view is that this time Clark would score a victory by finishing first — first among the non-New England candidates, that is.

In other words, fourth place would be good enough for starters.

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