Clark's fast political learning curve
Wedged into a tiny chair, his knees up to his chin, retired Gen. Wesley Clark gazes at a group of 3-year-olds serenading him with a vigorous rendition of "Good Morning to You."Skip to next paragraph
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The former NATO commander has come to the Rochester Child Care Center on this wintry morning to announce his new plan for early-childhood education. It's the sort of campaign stop that most candidates would breeze through - given the grand total of 11 people of voting age in the building. Yet two hours later, Clark's still there, touring classrooms and intently quizzing the teachers.
"What are your qualifications?" he asks one. "How do you know what to teach them?" he asks another. When he questions a third about how to balance the needs of the group against the needs of individual kids, she blurts out: "I'm nervous!"
"Don't be nervous," Clark hastens to reassure. "I'm here to learn from you."
As the only candidate who has never run for - let alone held - elective office, Clark has indeed been the student in this race. He joined the campaign just this past September, generating a flurry of media coverage and shooting to the top of national polls. But within weeks, his momentum stalled. He pulled out of the Iowa caucuses, citing the difficulty in assembling an organization there. Critics attacked him as vague on domestic policy. Most problematic, he seemed hesitant and prone to gaffes - most notably, when he told a group of reporters the day after announcing his candidacy that he "probably" would have voted for the Iraq war resolution, after presenting himself as strongly opposed to the war.
Yet for all his political greenness, Clark has been a quick study, learning from mistakes and adjusting his approach. And lately, there are signs his campaign may be on an upswing. He expects to raise up to $12 million in the fourth quarter - far more than any other candidate save front-runner Howard Dean. Although he trails Dr. Dean by 30 points in New Hampshire, polls show him challenging Sen. John Kerry for second place there. If he does even better in the next round of primaries on Feb. 3 - in states such as South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Arizona, where his campaign is investing heavily - many believe he could be the party's top alternative to Dean.
For Clark supporters, his key selling point can be summed up in a single word: electability. Introducing the general at the statehouse in Portland, Maine (where Democratic caucuses are Feb. 8), grass-roots organizer Jill Squire explains how she came to back Clark: "I looked at all the other candidates, and one word kept running through my mind: electability, electability, electability."
Clark's Arkansas roots - evident in his soft pronunciation of words like "Warshington" - could help him appeal to a broader swath of the country than his New England-born rivals. The last three Democratic presidents all came from the South; Bill Clinton grew up in Clark's hometown of Little Rock. (The two knew each other tangentially over the years, and many former Clinton aides are advising the Clark campaign - though the Clintons themselves have professed neutrality.)
The bigger lure, however, is Clark's résumé: Rhodes Scholar, Vietnam veteran, four-star general, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. In an election cycle dominated by war and terrorism, many Democrats believe, only a candidate with strong military credentials can challenge President Bush without seeming weak on defense.
Clark makes the point often. Democrats "must find a candidate who has the best chance of being able to go toe to toe with the president in terms of his experience - and not lose for this party the mantle of patriotism, and not carry an 'antiwar' mantle," he says in an interview. "I'm not antiwar; I'm anti the wrong war."