Back in his trademark blue suit, red tie, and duck boots, Gen. Wesley Clark doesn't look much like a chess grandmaster.
But as he strides into a packed hall here at the Franklin Pierce Law Center, it's clear this military strategist is riding a wave of momentum, thanks in part to a risky move: opting out of the Iowa caucuses, the first official contest in the nation's now frontloaded and frenzied presidential nominating process.
While most of the major Democratic presidential candidates and national media are focused on the final weekend blitz from Waterloo to Cedar Rapids, General Clark and Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut have New Hampshire pretty much all to themselves.
For both it was a strategic decision determined by how best to spend limited resources. Mr. Lieberman, with his conservative-centrist stances, was also not a good fit with Iowa's more liberal caucusgoers. Clark, who entered the race only in September, felt that he would have needed to start much earlier in Iowa to be a credible candidate.
Yet their decisions provide a lesson in the quirky dynamics of the presidential nominating process. Skipping Iowa amounts to a calculated risk that could catapult one of them to the front of the pack, or end their candidacies for good.
In 2000, for instance, Arizona Senator John McCain skipped the Iowa caucuses, and stunned the Republican establishment by beating George W. Bush by 19 points in New Hampshire. Bush then went on to trounce him in the South.
"It does say something that the two candidates believed they had little to lose by skipping Iowa, but they also may pay a price for it," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Iowa is now where all the energy is and skipping it could deprive Clark, in particular, of the oxygen he needs to sustain [his momentum.]"
THERE are other risks as well. Iowa is an important swing state, and Iowans are famously proud of their first-in-the-nation status. Skipping it could come back to bite a candidate in the general election. And then there's the perception game. This is a year Democrats are looking first and foremost for a candidate who can beat George Bush. If someone is perceived as so weak that he can't compete in Iowa, that could undermine his credibility in the later primaries.
And finally, there's the much-vaunted Iowa "big mo" - momentum. A candidate who does surprisingly well in Iowa can jump into the New Hampshire race and upend all of the best laid plans. That's, in fact, what Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts is hoping for. His once-commanding lead in New Hampshire disappeared long ago, and he's running a mediocre third. So he's been focusing more on Iowa.
"Kerry's got to beat the expectations game in Iowa in order to do well here," says Jennifer Donahue of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester.
But many people in New Hampshire scoff at the informal caucus process as a mere warm-up for their "real" first-in-the-nation primary.
They note pointedly that even though the caucuses have been going on for almost 150 years, they only gained national recognition in the 1970s, when the press started paying attention to them.
People in New Hampshire like activist Bob Shaine, a veteran of 15 presidential primaries, note that New Hampshire is a "true primary, a secret ballot sanctioned by the state" unlike the caucuses which are controlled by the party. Mr. Shaine had been urging his candidate, Joe Lieberman, to forget Iowa for months before he formally opted out in October.
"I wish he'd done it sooner, just from a very pragmatic perspective," says Shaine, standing quietly at the back of a packed house party for Mr. Lieberman outside Manchester this week. "It didn't make any sense to campaign against Gephardt and Dean. Dean has been practically living out there ... for the past two years, and that's Gephardt's natural country."
Shaine, in a green plaid shirt and black-and-white herringbone sports jacket, says Lieberman's money is better spent here, where a surprise come from behind could give the former vice-presidential candidate a springboard to the next primaries. And while Lieberman is still hoping for a surprise, he is languishing in the single digits in the polls here.
So far, Clark has emerged as the biggest beneficiary of this "opting out" strategy. In the past week, he's steadily gained in the polls.