Will a Little Bit of Everything Add Up to a Win for Clark?

Posted September 17, 2003 at 2:34pm

Instead of asking how former Gen. Wesley Clark’s entry into the Democratic race affects the nine candidates who have been in the race for months, try turning that question around. [IMGCAP(1)]

In other words: How are Clark’s prospects affected by the existing candidates?

The general is an outsider and a fresh face, but there are already outsiders and fresh faces in the race. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has been running against the Democratic establishment for months, and he has already benefited from not being part of Washington.

Clark is a military veteran, but the Democratic field already has a hopeful who has spent months talking about his courage under fire and his military background, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. Clark’s military record is far more extensive and his expertise in military matters much greater, of course.

The former general is a Southerner, but there are already two candidates from south of the Mason-Dixon line. He is from Arkansas, but he doesn’t sound nearly as much like a Southerner as do Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina or even Sen. Bob Graham of Florida.

Clark, some say, is just the kind of Democrat who can beat President Bush. He’s electable. But while Democratic primary voters and caucus attendees clearly want to nominate a winner, it isn’t clear who that is.

Dean’s message that his combativeness and passion will defeat Bush is just as believable as Clark’s experience on military issues. And if grassroots Democrats didn’t already regard the former Vermont governor as a serious threat to Bush, Dean wouldn’t be where he is in the polls at this point.

True, Clark may be more of an outsider than Dean, since he has never held elective office. And he has more military experience than Kerry. And Arkansas is further south than North Carolina and more “Southern” than megastate Florida. But are voters measuring candidates against these yardsticks?

No. Whatever Clark’s individual assets, they aren’t enough to overshadow the assets of existing candidates. Instead, the retired general has to be basing his candidacy on his ability to package two things — his ability to convey a sense that he is a leader and his personable style.

Face it, Dean still comes across as too angry and often too nasty, while Kerry seems distant (even when he is trying to play the guitar to show how down to earth he is). Too many Democrats see Rep. Richard Gephardt as yesterday’s news — certainly not a quality usually associated with leadership — while Edwards hasn’t convinced voters he’s substantive enough to lead the country.

Clark may suffer from Dean’s overinflated sense of self-worth and his cockiness, but he has an easier manner and a disarming smile. He seems more approachable and likable, but he does so in a package that exudes confidence and projects leadership and strength.

Forget talk about Clark having “Clinton’s team.” Bill Clinton won his party’s nomination in 1992 because of his own qualities and skills, not because he had Ron Klain or Bruce Lindsey on board.

And forget those analogies to Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower, two generals who became president. Neither Ike, the most recent career military man to win the White House and the name most often invoked by Clark supporters as evidence that their man can win, nor Grant, nor Andrew Jackson nor George Washington faced the media scrutiny that Clark will. All ran before television changed how candidates conduct campaigns and the media covers candidates.

Clark’s biggest problems are that, unlike his opponents, he has never run for office, has established no organization in key early states and has made no mark on domestic issues.

Odds are good that the general will make a handful of blunders in his first couple of months as a candidate. Even experienced candidates stumble, and, as we have seen recently, a candidate unfamiliar with the spotlight (such as Dean) has a habit of putting his foot in his mouth. The only question is whether Clark’s faux pas will be disqualifying, or whether he can stumble repeatedly yet recover on the strength of his personality and outsider pose.

Questions about Clark’s ability to raise enough money quickly and put together local organizations in Iowa to compete there will have to be answered quickly. The best bet for the general would be to appropriate the organization of a candidate who is exiting the contest. But so far, nothing is available.

In many ways, Clark is a more personable version of Dean. That’s a problem for the general, since Dean has been running for months and has already caught fire. A Dean stumble would give Clark the opening he needs, but even then it’s far from clear that the general can fill the vacuum. For while Clark is a great résumé, he’s only a résumé right now.

Given Dean’s emergence and Clark’s profile, it’s difficult not to wonder what Clark’s prospects would be if he had entered the race immediately after the 2002 elections.