Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark on Wednesday proposed giving the North Atlantic Treaty Organization a new mission in tracking down international terrorists like Osama bin Laden.
The retired general’s proposals came as his campaign sought to make the most of recent gains in polls showing him moving within striking distance of Howard Dean in New Hampshire.
Clark, who has been drawing larger crowds at campaign stops across the state in recent days, was presenting a plan to improve homeland security and the war on terror.
His plan, being unveiled later Wednesday in a speech in Concord, calls for bringing in U.S. allies and better using law, diplomacy, law enforcement and intelligence capabilities, while resorting to war only as a last resort.
Clark, a former NATO supreme commander who ran the war in Kosovo, proposed a new role for NATO nations in the war on terror.
'A better way'
“There is a better way to go after the actual terrorists who have attacked our country and continue to threaten it. The threat from al-Qaida is still a clear and present danger,” James Rubin, a State Department official in the Clinton administration and now an adviser to Clark, told reporters ahead of Clark’s speech.
Rubin said various procedures were established among NATO nations to deal with resolving peacetime conflicts and “the same mechanism can be used for terrorism.”
Clark was also expected to work to enlist Arab and some Muslim nations in the hunt for terrorists, will seek closer cooperation with Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf in combating terror organizations, and will propose a $40 billion Homeland Economic Security Fund, Clark aides said.
Clark has suggested that the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks could have been prevented, and has accused President Bush of being too preoccupied with getting Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to do enough to hunt down bin Laden.
Clark, who was spending most of the week in New Hampshire while most of his rivals toiled in Iowa, was gaining on Dean, several recent polls showed. Some showed the former Vermont governor’s once formidable lead of around 25 percent at the start of the year down to high single digits.
“I like Iowa. Had a lot of friends out there. They wanted me to come. But I’m really loving New Hampshire,” Dean told CNN.
David Corbin, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said that Clark could even overtake Dean.
“You see an amazing number of Clark signs going up. His crowds are doubling and tripling. Many people in the Dean camp are now wavering,” said Corbin.
Comparison to McCain
He compared Clark’s surge to that enjoyed in the final days of the 2000 GOP primary by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who went on to win the primary, although he later lost the nomination to George Bush.
A poll by the Boston Herald published on Wednesday showed Dean’s lead shrinking to nine points.
An independent poll, by the American Research Group, Inc., showed Dean with 32 percent support and Clark with 22 percent in the three-day period that ended Tuesday. Clark, already strong among men, has been gaining support among older women. John Kerry is at 13 percent.
Mo Elleithee, a Clark spokesman, said the polls reflected “forward movement” that was welcome.
Still, he cautioned, “polls are volatile,” especially in New Hampshire, in the final days before a primary election. “it’s not going to change the way we do business,” he said.
The tightening of the New Hampshire race has injected new energy into Clark’s campaign and prompted Dean, the former governor of Vermont, to revise his strategy.
Dean, locked in a close four-way fight in Iowa, attacked Clark directly during a campaign stop in New Hampshire, before heading back to Iowa.
“I think Gen. Clark is a good guy, but I truly believe he’s a Republican. I do. Harry Truman once said if you run a Republican against a Republican, the Republican’s going to win every time,” Dean said.
The Republican connection
“Look, I don’t mean offense to Gen. Clark. He is a good guy. And I don’t mind that he voted for Nixon and Reagan. That was a long time ago,” Dean said. “What bothers me is he went out and raised money for the Republican Party and said great things about Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush.”
Clark is not competing in the kickoff Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19, instead focusing much of his energy and attention on New Hampshire’s Jan. 27 primary.
Clark himself has been drawing the kind of fire from rivals that in the past had been aimed mainly at Dean. At issue are his position on Iraq, his past votes for Republican President Reagan, and for recent comments on abortion and on the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.
In an interview last week with the Manchester Union Leader, Clark said he opposed any restriction on abortion, even right up until the last day of a pregnancy. He also said he would not appoint judges who oppose the right to abortion.
“Life begins with the mothers’ decision,” Clark said.
His statement drew condemnations from anti-abortion groups. His campaign later suggested Clark had not intended to get into a debate over timing.
Clark has also drawn some heat for suggesting that the terror attacks could have been prevented. “If I’m president of the United States, I’m going to take care of the American people,” Clark told the Concord Monitor. “We are not going to have one of these incidents.”