Wesley Clark had talked for nearly an hour about Iraq, nuclear energy, taxes, even windmills, fielding questions at a rat-a-tat rate from prickly New Hampshire voters. Finally, he threw his hands in the air and smiled.
“You’re a tough crowd to warm up!” the Democratic presidential candidate said as heads nodded in agreement throughout the cramped conference room. “I’m excited! What about you?”
The plea drew a polite cheer, but one Clark supporter gazed across the crowd of 75 and gave voice to a thought that spoke volumes about the rapidly shifting nomination fight: “Howard Dean doesn’t have to work this hard.”
Clark is one of five hardworking, hard-charging candidates with a reasonable chance of overtaking Dean when the primary season begins in mid-January, along with Rep. Dick Gephardt and Sens. John Edwards, John Kerry and Joe Lieberman.
A divided party
Party leaders are divided over the strength of Dean’s surge. Many Democrats sense an aura of invincibility gathering around the former Vermont governor; just as many warn that the landscape can shift quickly once the voting starts next month.
The debate suggests that Dean has come close to achieving a goal he set for strategists months ago in the face of skepticism from the party establishment: create a perception of inevitability before the first votes are cast.
The task for Dean’s rivals got harder last week when former Vice President Al Gore’s endorsement gave the anti-war, Washington-outsider candidacy a stamp of approval from the ultimate insider. Democratic pollsters tracked an enormous initial bump in support for Dean.
A few Democratic governors moved closer to endorsing their former colleague, White House advisers braced GOP allies for a Dean nomination, and wary Democratic leaders intensified efforts to embolden one of the anti-Dean candidates.
Over very quickly?
“With Gore’s endorsement, if Dean wins New Hampshire and Iowa and comes down here with momentum, he could win South Carolina and the nomination fight would be over. I would not have thought that was possible a month ago,” said Joe Erwin, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party.
The state holds the first-in-the-South primary Feb. 3.
“Gore’s announcement helped Dean tremendously,” said Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico. Like Erwin, he is not yet committed to a candidate. “Nonetheless, this race is not over and the Dean camp better not take anything for granted,” he said.
“Voters have a funny way of sending a message, and the message this time might be, ‘Hey, boys. We haven’t voted yet,”’ Richardson said. “This is a race for second place — to be the alternative to Dean.”
Any one of the five anti-Dean candidates could claim that slot; thus they are staying in the race. It is a political paradox because the longer all five remain in the race, the harder it is to beat Dean.
“It’s easier when it’s one-on-one,” said Don Fowler, former national Democratic Party chairman. It is a function of history and human nature, he said, for people to look for alternatives to Dean.
“It’s not an indictment on him. It’s how we do things. It was — if not Lyndon Johnson in 1968, then who? If not McGovern in 1972, then who? If not Carter in 1976, then who?” Fowler said.
If not Dean in 2004, then who?
Clark may have the best odds. He plans to raise more than $10 million in the October-December period, more than anybody but Dean. Polls show him to be gaining ground in early voting states, and his performance in campaigning is uneven but improving.
The retired Army general testifies this week in the Netherlands at the U.N. war crimes trial of Yugoslavia’s former president, Slobodan Milosevic, a high-profile reminder of Clark’s leadership at NATO.
If he has any weaknesses, they would be his prickly demeanor under fire and his ties to the GOP. Speaking before Florida Democrats recently, Clark suggested that the 2000 election was stolen from Gore. Later, he bristled when asked why he waited three years to make that charge.
“I wasn’t a public figure back then,” he replied, his voice rising.
Then he complained that Republicans released tapes and transcripts of him praising Bush at a 2001 fund-raiser.
Shades of Perot
“They weren’t released to help me. You understand? You understand?” His high-pitched, clipped rebuke sounded like a Ross Perot rant from the 1992 campaign, when the blustery Texan accused Republicans of dirty tricks.
Several Democrats said Gephardt, a Missouri congressman, could be the anti-Dean if he wins Iowa’s Jan. 19 caucuses and makes a stand in South Carolina, where he picked up an important endorsement last week from six-term Rep. Jim Clyburn. Support for Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, has fallen in New Hampshire, a state he cannot afford to lose, but he has enough money to lead the assault on Dean’s record.
North Carolina Sen. Edwards is promising voters to wage an optimistic and inclusive campaign, a far cry from the partisanship and heated rhetoric that has fueled Dean’s rise. Connecticut Sen. Lieberman, jilted by Gore, his 2000 running mate, has sought to benefit from the sympathy that has come his way.
But party leaders are starting to say nice things about Dean, a sign of his gathering political strength.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who says he will not endorse anytime soon, called Lieberman the single-most qualified candidate in the race. But he had high praise for Dean.
“I thought he was a fiscally conservative progressive on social issues as governor of Vermont. He was one of the most creative governors in the United States of America,” Rendell said. “He’d make a great president.”