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."

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."

He casts himself as a modern-day Eisenhower, promising to go to Iraq and get America out of the mess with honor. He also stresses his belief that force should be a last resort. "You don't really solve problems by war," he tells voters in a small banquet room at the Manchester Alpine Club. "It's very hard to change people's minds after you've killed their relatives."

To many, it's a winning message. "I like his attitude when he said we don't need war," says George Forrest, a retired transit worker with a "Veterans for Clark" button. "I love that kind of thinking."

But others are more skeptical, exhibiting the distrust many liberals have held for military leaders since Vietnam. At an event in Nashua, one woman asks Clark if he is "of, by, and for the military-industrial complex." (He is not, he assures her, adding, "Are you kidding?")

Adding to doubts is Clark's short life as a Democrat: In the past, like many in the military, he voted Republican - for Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush's father. (He did vote for Al Gore in 2000.) To a C-SPAN caller wondering how any Democrat could vote for Reagan, he says that in the Army, he wasn't a member of any party; he just "voted for people who were strong for national security."

Even Clark's spit-and-polish image doesn't quite fit with the Democrats' mood: Many seem to want a passionate nominee, and Clark has more of a quiet intensity. Repeatedly, voters use the word "gentleman" to describe him. At times, there's even a surprising sweetness to his demeanor, heightened by Bambi-big eyes (which can lend a deer-in-the-headlights effect), and a self-conscious smile.

At debates, the physically slight general can seem lost in the crowd - and even at the podium, his presence lacks the fiery zeal of rivals like Dean. But talking to voters, he comes across as earnest and smart, engaging in long exchanges. At the Alpine Club, one voter talks at length about doctors' rising insurance rates. Clark asks several questions, and finally says: "All right. I'll work that issue" - a phrase he uses often, reflecting his characteristic mix of dogged determination and pragmatism.

Still, many wonder if he has the necessary political instincts. "You still have to hold elective office," says Kevin Fleming, Democratic chair for Exeter. Not being a politician has advantages, he says: Clark is "remarkably human." But he concludes the office has grown too complex - and the political challenges too steep - for an Eisenhower-like candidate to win.

At a house party in Exeter, Barbara James is blunter. Stressing that for most Democrats, getting rid of Bush is the top priority, she asks Clark: "Do you have the fire in your belly to take this man down?"

Tellingly, Clark has added new emotion to his stump speech. Talking about GOP attempts to label those who disagree as unpatriotic, he abruptly asks veterans in the audience to stand. He then walks over and grabs an American flag. "This is our flag," he says - a flag for which he, like many of them, shed blood. "And no Tom DeLay or John Ashcroft or George Bush is going to take this flag away from us." As he finishes, his eyes well up with tears.

His campaign is deftly rolling out domestic-policy proposals, as well, including a $100 billion jobs plan. On the trail, Clark now often spends more time talking about domestic issues than foreign policy.

And he's working hard to counter some of the early hits he took - and stumbles he made - in the campaign. Perhaps the biggest blunder was his statement about supporting the war resolution, which undercut his claim that he opposed the war. He's asked about the remark at nearly every event, and lately has taken to raising the matter himself in his stump speech. It was a rookie mistake, he tells audiences, saying he simply "bobbled the question."

Almost as damaging has been criticism from Army colleagues, such as former Defense Secretary William Cohen and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Hugh Shelton, who've attacked Clark in an unusually personal way, raising questions about his character. Clark makes no effort to hide the fact that he was essentially fired from his post as NATO commander, referring to an Army career that ended before he would have liked. It was a shock, he writes in his book "Waging Modern War," since he'd just led the successful air war in Kosovo. Supporters chalk up the attacks to professional jealousy and a clash over strategy when Clark pressed for the option to use ground troops. His campaign has released elaborate statements from other colleagues praising Clark's intellect and skill.

One aspect of Clark's campaign that's had both positive and negative effects is his late start. It allowed him to dominate media coverage for a time; it may also have given him a fundraising advantage, since he's now gathering "low-hanging fruit" from those most likely to give to him anyway, and he can funnel that into early primaries. And for a candidate campaigning on biography, the late start gives voters less time to focus on much beyond his military image.

But in many ways, Clark's style seems more suited to intimate settings - the events that tend to dominate a campaign's early stages, but are less and less efficient as the race hurtles into its final weeks.

More subtly, his late entrance as a candidate responding to an Internet draft movement raises questions about his political hunger. He'd flirted with a run throughout the past year - traveling to key states and delivering speeches on the challenges facing the nation - but he waited until the fall to jump in, saying no other candidate had "taken off," and that he was responding to the call of some 60,000 people who signed an online draft petition.

The decision, he says in an interview, was "agonizing." Not only was he not a politician; he'd just begun a business career, one he was loath to abandon. Clark's plan, coming out of the Army, was to "make $40 million," become a philanthropist, go into university teaching or administration, and "work on my golf game and become a teaching golf professional."

He also had financial concerns, knowing he'd have to live off savings during the campaign. In recent years, he notes, most of those who've run for president without having held elective office - such as Steve Forbes or Ross Perot - had the benefit of deep pockets. "I didn't have that," he says.

This lack of personal wealth is a recurrent theme. While his humble upbringing isn't central to his stump speech the way it is for Rep. Richard Gephardt and Sen. John Edwards, he still uses it as a contrast to his more privileged opponents. And many of his stories involve relatively recent struggles: He tells supporters he had to borrow money from his parents to send his son to private school. When he was 41, he spent a month "rebuilding" his car because he didn't have $2000 to get it repaired. The one time he really began making money, working in the private sector, he paid five times as much in taxes as he'd earned as a four-star general.

But while Gephardt stresses help he got from church groups and his community, Clark's world view is more meritocratic. As he leaves a Manchester forum, a voter asks him to compare himself to Bush. "I made it on my own," Clark says, adding that he worked to get ahead and didn't take anything for granted. He starts to walk away, then wheels back to add: "I would never have been a fraternity president at Yale!"

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