While political attention is riveted on Iowa, Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark is closing the once-commanding lead that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean had in New Hampshire.
The tightening of the New Hampshire race has prompted Dean to revise his strategy and is injecting new energy into the retired Army general’s campaign.
Clark is not competing in the kickoff Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19 and instead is focusing much of his energy and attention on New Hampshire’s Jan. 27 primary.
Clark campaigned here Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, when he outlined his plan for improving homeland security.
The Clark security strategy includes bringing in U.S. allies and better using law, diplomacy, law enforcement and intelligence but resorting to war only as a last resort.
Deployment of troops in Iraq criticized“We’re in Iraq. We have to make a success out of it,” Clark said Wednesday on CNN’s “American Morning.” However, he criticized the way troops had been deployed.
“The Bush administration is trying to use the armed forces as a political weapon in this domestic election,” Clark said. “The simple truth is, the armed forces exist to protect the United States, to be used as a last resort. That’s not the case of Iraq. We’ve been misusing our armed forces. It was a mistake to get into Iraq.”
Locked in a close four-way fight in Iowa, Dean spent Tuesday in Vermont and planned a campaign stop in New Hampshire before heading back to Iowa.
Private polling by two campaigns in New Hampshire showed that Dean’s lead has shrunk to single digits from a first-of-the-year high of about 25 percentage points, according to officials familiar with the polls.
However, an independent poll, by the American Research Group, Inc., showed Dean with 34 percent support and Clark with 20 percent in the three-day period that ended Monday. Meanwhile, the Dean campaign plans to deploy surrogates and other campaign tactics to question Clark’s views on the war, ties to the Republican Party, commitment to abortion rights and special interest connections.
‘Hearing our footsteps’
Mo Elleithee, a spokesman for Clark in New Hampshire, said the Dean campaign was getting nervous. “Clearly, they’re hearing our footsteps, and they’re resorting to the tired, old politics of attacks,” he said.
The Dean camp also began running a new anti-war ad in Iowa.
“Where did the Washington Democrats stand on the war?” an announcer asks in Dean’s ad, which drew protests from his rivals. “Dick Gephardt wrote the resolution to authorize war. John Kerry and John Edwards both voted for the war.”
Clark was spared criticism in the ad, but officials familiar with Dean’s strategy said the retired Army general was about to become a campaign target. There were no plans to run ads criticizing Clark before Iowa’s caucuses.
For his part, Clark sought anew to dismiss criticism from his rivals that he had vacillated on the war in Iraq, signaling earlier support for it. He contended that charges he had different positions on the war were examples of “old-style politics.”
Clark defends war stance
“I was consistently against this since from the time the guys from the Pentagon told me two weeks after 9/11 that we were attacking Iraq,” Clark said Wednesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “It didn’t make any sense to me. I’ve been very, very consistent on this. This was a war we didn’t have to fight, it was an elective war.”
Clark has called for a congressional investigation into the lead-up to the war “to bring all the relevant factors in and find out exactly why we did go into Iraq.”
Dean aides expect he will face questions Wednesday in New Hampshire on Clark’s rise. They said he may use the opportunity to point out differences between his record and Clark’s.
The anti-war ad and sharpened rhetoric are part of a risky strategy for Dean, particularly in Iowa, where negative campaigning in the run-up to the caucuses is usually poorly received.
Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi said aides were attentive to Clark’s rise, but not surprised by it since Clark bypassed Iowa to concentrate on New Hampshire.
“He’s been shooting free throws by himself on one end of the court while we’ve been throwing elbows at each other at the other end,” Trippi said.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut also chose to sit out the Iowa primary and to focus on New Hampshire, but he continues to lag in the polls.