The General Stumbles

The early buzz around Wesley Clark's candidacy has faded. Can he still prevail?

He was the Democratic candidate from Central Casting for the post-September 11 world: a handsome four-star general and former Rhodes scholar from the South. Indeed, only days after announcing his intention to challenge Commander-in-Chief George W. Bush in September, Wesley K. Clark rocketed to the top tier of Presidential contenders. But the general who subdued Serbia is finding a tougher slog in the Democratic trenches. After the first burst of publicity, Clark's campaign has bogged down in basic problems of message and campaign management.

The former NATO commander has fallen behind the surging Democratic front-runner, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. While still leading in the Feb. 3 showdown state of South Carolina, Clark is lagging in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation Jan. 27 primary. Clark was expected to dent Dean's momentum with a strong showing in New Hampshire, but his support there is just 4%, according to a Nov. 2-5 American Research Group Inc. poll of likely Democtratic primary voters. That's hardly a threat to Dean's 38%. Even if he falls short in the Granite State, Clark says he isn't worried. "Look, everything about this candidacy is unconventional," he told BusinessWeek on Nov. 11 as he campaigned at a series of Veterans Day events across the state. "I believe in this country, and if people believe in me, that's all the magic it takes."

At this point, however, Clark is still looking for that elusive magic. Hyped as a straight-talking outsider who could appeal to independents and moderate Republicans, he has come across in early debates as a conventional liberal. His frequent opening line -- "I'm a pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, pro-health Democrat" -- sounds an awful lot like Dean Lite. "He had to stay white-hot and become the 'electable Dean,"' says Democratic strategist Kenneth Baer. "Instead, he has come across as a pol."

What's more, the Clark effort has been rife with infighting. Campaign manager Donnie Fowler, Vice-President Al Gore's field director in 2000, quit in less than a month because senior advisers were relying more on Washington insiders than on the Draft Clark outsiders who got the general to run after a six-month Internet offensive. Another problem: Many of Clark's top strategists are working part-time -- a sharp contrast with Dean staffers who have decamped to Vermont.


Still, while Clark may be down, he's far from out. As the economy improves, the campaign's focus is shifting toward foreign policy, his strong suit. And the Democratic Establishment is growing increasingly frantic to find an alternative to maverick outsider Dean, who is perceived by party bosses as a likely loser to Bush.

Clark strategists plan to highlight a stylistic distinction with the blunt front-runner: If Dean is the angry outsider, Clark will be the optimistic one. It's a theme the general hits repeatedly as he exhorts audiences to embrace "a new American patriotism."

Above all else, the Clarkies will make the case that he can attract undecided voters in the South and Midwest turned off by Dean's Northeastern brashness. "The key is who can appeal to swing voters and not be polarizing," says longtime friend Skip Rutherford, president of the Clinton Foundation in Little Rock, Ark. "Democrats have to start asking themselves how important winning is. Clark can win."

But to win against Bush, Clark must first win the Democratic nomination. Having opted out of Iowa, aides concede that he needs to finish, at worst, a strong third in New Hampshire behind New England favorite sons Dean and Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry. Clark is hoping to overtake fellow Vietnam vet Kerry -- whose troubled campaign recently lost three top officials in a last-gasp shakeup -- with town hall meetings designed to showcase his intelligence and easy rapport with average Americans. It's no surprise: A similar strategy helped another decorated war hero, 2000 Republican Presidential candidate John McCain (R-Ariz.), upset Bush in the Granite State.

In addition to tapping his military experience to lay out an alternative vision for post-war Iraq, Clark will try to convince Dems of his domestic knowhow. He will point to his experience managing military bases with thousands of families and services such as schools and health care. "It's like being a mayor," says one Clark adviser. That's a stretch: Generals never need to raise taxes, and mayors have to win support, not command it.

Like every other Democratic hopeful, Clark is positioning himself to capitalize if Dean stumbles. And some rank-and-file voters are worried about how Dean would fare against the GOP attack machine. "I'd vote for a dog catcher if he could beat Bush," said retiree Peter Bourque of Manchester. "But I'm concerned about Dean. He's too in-your-face and confrontational."

For Clark to capture the nomination, he must persuade voters such as Bourque to enlist in his campaign army. He still has some selling to do. "Right now, as a candidate, I'd give him maybe a 'B' or a 'C,"' says Bourque. Not a failing grade, but not enough to rise to the top of the class, either.

By Richard S. Dunham and Alexandra Starr in Washington, and Lee Walczak in Manchester, N.H.

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