Rothenberg: The Charge of the Clark Brigade

Posted January 14, 2004 at 9:59am

The first two weeks of January were kind to retired Gen. Wesley Clark.

The former NATO chief saw his support grow in New Hampshire, as his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination focused on ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. He has also seen a boost in the Iowa caucuses and is increasingly viewed as the emerging chief rival to Dean during February and, if he is lucky, beyond. [IMGCAP(1)]

If Clark were a house, people would say he has “curb appeal.”

After stumbling in his first days as a candidate, he has improved recently. He’s good looking, has some charisma and talks fluidly about foreign policy. His tax plan and rhetoric was well within Democratic Party orthodoxy, and the growing sense that the Democrats’ hopes of defeating President Bush rests on foreign policy and homeland security issues strengthens Clark’s appeal.

Yes, Clark sounds too much like a problem-solver and is short on empathy. He doesn’t have that Bill Clinton “bite your lower lip” quality or Ronald Reagan’s “aw shucks” appeal. But Dean lacks those same qualities too, so he can’t take advantage of Clark’s stylistic inadequacies.

And Clark’s money is good. Only he, Kerry and Dean appear to have the guaranteed financial resources for a marathon, and that credentials him ultimately as a contender for his party’s top prize.

But Clark’s prospects continue to be iffy.

First, Clark hasn’t been in his rivals’ cross-hairs, so voters in New Hampshire didn’t get a steady diet of anti-Clark rhetoric for weeks. But that’s already started to change, and the criticism of the general who once said such nice things about Bush will likely grow once New Hampshire becomes the political test du jour.

Clark has also benefited by being able to remain positive while his many of his opponents have spent the past couple of weeks sniping at each other. That too is likely to change, as Clark becomes the focus of attacks, particularly those raising questions about his recent commitment to the Democratic Party and his previous comments about the president.

If the retired general turns the other cheek and fails to respond, voters will believe the attacks on him. And if he responds to the criticism, he’ll get bogged down into the political campaign version of a ground war in Asia — a daily barrage of attacks and counter-attacks that will make him look like every other politician.

Second, the calendar continues to be a problem for the general, who has wisely taken a pass on Iowa. While he was smart not to waste resources on a futile effort in an inhospitable contest, that doesn’t mean his strategy is not without cost.

If Dean doesn’t win Iowa, Rep Richard Gephardt probably will. That would give the Missouri Congressman a flurry of favorable media coverage for a couple of days, probably ensuring that he’ll be a factor in early February. That wouldn’t be great news for Clark, who clearly is counting on the race boiling down to a one-on-one with Dean sooner rather than later.

On the other hand, if Dean wins Iowa, he can put the race away a week later in the Granite State. A second-place finish by Clark (to Dean) in New Hampshire might well establish him as the alternative to the doctor, but it would do so too late — only after the proverbial horse had left the barn.

Two wins in two contests by the Vermonter would almost certainly win him more endorsements, open the fundraising flood gates further and give him the all-important “inevitability” advantage that strong frontrunners often use to dispatch their rivals.

Clark will now be tested by his Democratic rivals. He needs to find a way to keep his momentum going. And he needs to pray that Dean stumbles enough to make the fight for the Democratic nomination a real race.

Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.