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Sizing up the Wesley Clark effect

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With the cool audacity of a commander who isn’t intimidated by catastrophes that might unfold on the battlefield, retired Gen. Wesley Clark is poised to announce Wednesday that he’ll enter the race for the Democratic nomination. Despite his late leap into a crowded field, Clark should prove a formidable candidate who will have a serious impact on the race, even if he doesn’t win.

His timing is a case in point. Clark had the self-confidence to wait to jump in the race, past the point at which the patience of some political pundits had been exhausted.

“You’re telling me it’s so late?” said one Democratic consultant Tuesday. “Look, if the other Democratic contenders were good, it would be too late. But they invited the Clark candidacy,” he said, by running mediocre campaigns so far.

Clark’s delayed entry may prove to have been a shrewd move. The retired general waited long enough that that the attacks on Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean could intensify and Dean himself could stumble his way into some unforced errors, such as his making conflicting statements on whether U.S. troops can be pulled out of Iraq (“ours need to come home” or whether, as he said four days later, “ We have to stay there for the duration….. We need to reduce our troop strength in Iraq, we cannot do that until we get foreign replacements.”

Dean has a devoted group of followers and, as the third-quarter finance reports will likely indicate at the end of this month, has raised the most money of any Democratic contender.

But he has had to spend more and more time in recent days on the defensive, clarifying his views and fending off attacks from his rivals.

And Dean has appeared starchy and argumentative in some recent appearances. On ABC’s “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos on Sunday, Dean scolded the former White House staffer-turned-newsman who confronted him with evidence of his support for the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.

Clark brings to the race his crisp, no-nonsense television skills honed in many appearances on CNN as a military commentator. His rhetorical style is not trapped in the baroque stylistic excesses of the United States Senate, where several of his competitors hail from.

Although the full range of his military record has not yet been subjected to detailed scrutiny by the national news media, Clark spent his life in a profession that many Americans admire, especially just two years after the United States was attacked.

Any soldier who can rise to become a four-star general has already proven that he’s an adept politician, even if he has never been elected mayor or county supervisor.

Clark’s military persona has the potential to help the Democratic Party overcome its chronic deficiency on national defense issues among male voters and married mothers with children. Democratic Leadership Council pollster Mark Penn, reporting in July on a survey of 1,225 likely 2004 voters, said that among married voters with children, Democrats are 41 percentage points behind Republicans when voters are asked, “Who does a better job on this issue?”

One immediate effect of Clark’s entry is that his military credentials will outshine those of Kerry, the Democratic contender who had staked his candidacy on being the only decorated Vietnam veteran in the race.

A few weeks ago, the Draft Wesley Clark movement asked pollster John Zogby to test Clark’s appeal. Zogby used a “blind biography” method in which a thumbnail of Clark’s career — without his name attached — was read to poll respondents who were then asked whether they’d vote for the unnamed military man or for President Bush.

The general beat Bush in a trial heat, 49 percent to 40 percent.

Democratic Party leaders were cautiously respectful in their reaction to the imminent Clark entry into the race. Mark Brewer, executive chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said Tuesday, Clark “is a fine candidate who is well-qualified and a good addition to the field.” And Brewer noted that the Democratic race is “very fluid, wide open. A lot of the support (for the declared candidates) is pretty soft.”


But Republican pollster Whit Ayres sounded a note of skepticism. “He is way, way behind in money and in organization.”

While acknowledging that some Democrats are discontented with the current crop of contenders, Ayres said a late entry by a celebrity candidate only has the chance to work if the candidate is famous. “It can work for someone who is already a national figure such as Hillary Clinton or Al Gore. But nobody outside of political junkies has ever heard of Wesley Clark.”

Ayres contended that it was “completely irrelevant” how Clark or a blind biography of Clark performed in trial-heat runs against Bush

“The only relevant question is how well he will perform in the Democratic caucuses in Iowa, the Democratic primary in New Hampshire and the Democratic primary in South Carolina.” Ayres predicted that in six weeks, in polls in Iowa, Clark would be in single digits.

He said Clark’s dilemma was ideological as well: “If he is a liberal, there’s no more room left in the race for a liberal. If he’s a moderate, there are not enough moderate voters in the Democratic primaries for him to finish first.”


The other nine Democratic contenders have been raising funds and placing operatives in the key early states of Iowa and New Hampshire for more than nine months.

For instance, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry had a war chest of $11 million as of late June. One Democratic consultant said Clark must raise $4 million in the next month to establish his credibility as a candidate. That’s no easy task; Clark would have to receive maximum $2,000 contributions from 2,000 donors.

If, however, Clark were to pull off an improbable series of victories in some early primaries, Republicans could face the need to run against a most unusual Democrat, the kind of Democrat that no GOP consultant has experience running against, a four-star general, instead of running against a former governor of one of the nation’s most socially liberal states.