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Gaining in polls, Clark brushes off critics

No stranger to combat, retired Gen. Wesley Clark is suppressing a soldier’s instinct to return fire these days against Democratic presidential rivals whose criticisms mark him as a man on the move.
/ Source: The Associated Press

No stranger to combat, retired Gen. Wesley Clark is suppressing a soldier’s instinct to return fire these days against Democratic presidential rivals whose criticisms mark him as a man on the move.

“It’s what they do. Politics is a lot about attacks,” Clark says dismissively of the other contenders, eager to categorize them as standard-issue politicians while setting himself apart.

Rep. Dick Gephardt, Sen. Joe Lieberman and campaign front-runner Howard Dean have all criticized Clark recently, at a time when polls point to him gaining ground nationally and in key states.

“I think it’s accurate to say that General Clark is getting extremely large crowds,” said Kathleen Sullivan, chair of the Democratic Party in New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s first primary on Jan. 27.

“There’s a natural inclination on the part of voters to look at somebody different, a different background than everybody else in the race,” she added. Clark, who served 34 years in the military, is running his first political race.

Passing Kerry
Daily polling in New Hampshire by the American Research Group shows Clark moving past Sen. John Kerry into second place behind Dean in the state. A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll last week put Clark in a statistical tie nationally with Dean when the margin of error was taken into account.

Polls aside, aides say Clark raised more than $10 million in the last quarter of 2003, second only to Dean. A spokesman said he began the election year with roughly that much in his campaign treasury, including federal matching funds.

Clark is airing television commercials in nine states including Wisconsin and Virginia, whose primaries are a month away. Spokesman Matt Bennett said the campaign can compete evenly with Dean on the advertising front, “particularly since he’s having to spend a lot of money in Iowa, which we are not.”

Skipping next week’s kickoff Iowa caucuses represents a gamble for the retired four-star general, whose campaign appearances are anchored with a pledge of a “higher standard of leadership” and include mention of service, duty, honor and country.

Clark is betting that a strong finish in New Hampshire will allow him to emerge as the principal alternative to Dean in the race, and clear the way for victories in later primaries across the South and elsewhere. But for that to succeed, Clark must first hope that none of the other contenders uses Iowa as a springboard to emerge.

Dean admits momentum
Dean, who leads in the polls in both states, told reporters that Clark “does have a little momentum” in New Hampshire. The former Vermont governor said that was understandable, adding, “He has not been for the most part in the fray of all the attacks that have gone on.”

Jim Rupert, an ordained minister and retired community college professor who supports Clark, cites that as one of the retired general’s attributes.

“You can start with his resume, but I don’t accept the argument that’s all he is,” he said. Rupert added there is a “sameness” to the other candidates. “I like Clark perhaps because he has not spent his entire life in politics .... He doesn’t have seemingly the need to bash his opponents.”

Dick Bennett, whose American Research Group conducts daily tracking surveys in New Hampshire, said voters like Rupert are helping Clark gain ground. “Dean is more attractive to younger voters,” he said. “Clark is becoming more attractive to older men and increasingly older women.”

A new television commercial airing in the state features retired Army major Patricia Williams, who is black and served under Clark. “General Clark was very supportive of women,” she says.

Given the intensity of attacks that are customary in political campaigns, those aimed at Clark have been restrained so far.

Lieberman told a New Hampshire audience that Clark’s new tax plan would deny help to “families making more than $100,000, all single and married middle-class couples, all small business owners without kids, and all middle-class senior citizens.”

Support for protectionism
Gephardt, in South Carolina, quoted Clark as praising the North American Free Trade Agreement in 2001 and predicting positive results with its implementation. The state has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs in the past decade, and polls shows overwhelming support for protectionist measures.

Dean’s New Hampshire campaign distributed fliers last week headlined “Wesley Clark: pro war” in an attempt to undercut the credibility of the former general’s current criticism of the conflict. “If the fliers said that Gen. Clark was originally for the war and now is against it, that’s accurate,” the former Vermont governor said when asked about the actions of his aides.

Based on early campaign debates, there are other issues Clark is likely to be confronted with, including whether he was a lifelong Republican before joining the race.

For now, he says, an early campaign comment favorable to the Iraqi war was a “bobble” by a rookie candidate. And he says he voted for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan because he supported candidates who were “strong on national security.”

Thus far, Clark’s response to his rival’s attacks has been muted, consisting of fliers quoting Dean and Lieberman as praising him in the past.

“Right now, I don’t want to get into the conventional politics mode” and fire back, he said. “I don’t know. I’m not saying I never will.”