Union Tribune

September 25, 2003

Debate seen as first major test for Clark


WASHINGTON Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark's meteoric rise in the polls after a late entry into the presidential race has experts and some fellow candidates wondering whether his popularity will last or be a fleeting phenomenon.

That might become clearer today when he joins the other candidates in New York for a nationally televised debate. Party activists will be watching to see if Clark's rivals attack during the debate and, if so, how the former NATO commander acquits himself on the political battlefield.

Clark's surge has exposed how volatile the race for the Democratic nomination is four months before the first primary votes are cast and highlighted President Bush's growing vulnerability.

"Democrats may have come to the conclusion that they may actually win this election," said John White, a professor of politics at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. "Certainly, his rise reflects a general weakness of the field."

Two national polls, by Newsweek and USA Today, recently showed Clark jumping to the head of the Democratic pack.

The USA Today poll also had Clark ahead of Bush, 49 percent to 46 percent. But it showed that several other Democrats Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean are competitive against Bush.

Several experts dismissed those polls as ephemeral and largely inconsequential.

"Democratic voters are on a shopping spree," said Donna Brazile, Al Gore's 2000 campaign manager.

Nonetheless, Dean and Kerry have begun sniping at Clark.

Dean told The New York Times he was "shocked" when Clark said last week that he would have voted for a resolution last fall authorizing the use of military force against Iraq. Clark reversed himself 24 hours later.

Dean pointedly withheld comment on ABC's "Good Morning America" TV show yesterday when asked whether Clark is a "true Democrat."

In an interview with the Miami Herald, Kerry questioned Clark's Democratic credentials by underscoring Clark's acknowledgment that he had voted for Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Mark Fabiani, an adviser to Clark, responded: "The general is pro-choice, anti-war, pro-affirmative action, pro-environment. We say if that's a Republican, we could use more Republicans in this country. His positions are classically Democratic positions."

Charlie Cook, a respected political commentator, said of Clark, "I'm skeptical about his chances because I think first-time candidates make mistakes and first-time presidential candidates tend to make mistakes that are on the big stage."

National polls are less important in a nomination battle than a candidate's standing in key primary and caucus states. Although polls show that substantial numbers of voters remain undecided in New Hampshire and Iowa, which hold the first two Democratic contests, many top activists in those states are committed to one of the other nine candidates.

Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center said, "The opportunity that (Clark) has is that, from the polling that I've done, I've not seen that voters in New Hampshire are especially enthusiastic with any of the candidates."

Clark, an Arkansas native, could draw considerable support in South Carolina, an early primary state with a stronger military tradition.

"His strength nationally, his military experience, being a Southerner all of that points to a strong finish in South Carolina," said one prominent Democrat there, who isn't affiliated with any of the candidates.

The presence of many former senior aides to President Clinton on Clark's staff has fed speculation that Clark is serving as a "stalking horse" to clear the way for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's emergence as a presidential candidate.

Meeting with reporters over breakfast yesterday, Sen. Clinton, D-N.Y., insisted she wouldn't be a presidential candidate next year and denied that she and her husband were behind-the-scenes supporters of Clark.

"We are not supporting or endorsing any candidate," she said.