Union Tribune

January 20, 2004

Rivals are braking Clark's momentum
New Hampshire his first test vs. Democrat rivals


NASHUA, N.H. As the battle for the Democratic nomination shifts to New Hampshire, retired Gen. Wesley Clark could find himself under fire as his rivals attempt to chip away at his support.

"They are clearly going to come after him," said Dean Spiliotes, an analyst with the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College. "I've seen him on the stump, and his support is pretty soft."

With most of the other major candidates concentrating on the Iowa caucuses, Clark, fueled by strong fund-raising during the last quarter of 2003, has made major gains in New Hampshire tracking polls.

Day by day, surveys by pollster Dick Bennett last week showed Clark picking up support among women. But Bennett said that trend has slowed as the Jan. 27 primary approaches. Future polls here are likely to be shaken by the strong showing of Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards in Iowa yesterday.

A presidential candidate since September, Clark has been on the defensive over his Republican leanings during his 34-year Army career, his appearance on President Bush's behalf at a 2001 fund-raiser and a series of inconsistent statements about the war in Iraq.

In an effort last week to embarrass Howard Dean over his decision to close many of his records as Vermont's former governor, Clark said he was opening all of his pertinent records medical, tax, military and financial for public inspection.

He ended up also opening himself anew to hostile questions from rivals, particularly from Sens. Joe Lieberman and Kerry, about his brief but lucrative lobbying career. Lieberman also skipped the Iowa caucuses to concentrate on New Hampshire.

In the Granite State, independents can vote in partisan primary elections and comprise a prized bloc, particularly in a closely contested election such as the one now taking shape.

New Hampshire political experts say questions about whether Clark profited as a lobbyist because of his military contacts could be damaging with those independents who were drawn to Sen. John McCain's campaign in the 2000 primary here.

McCain, powered by his attacks on special interest groups in Washington, handily defeated Bush in the primary, only to fall short in subsequent contests.

Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, said her polling after the 2000 New Hampshire primary showed that nearly one-third of the voters made up their minds in the final days of the campaign. She said that the situation is likely to be at least as fluid this year.

"The (Democratic candidates) are not so far apart on the issues that voters are readily able to distinguish them," Fowler said. "So it will come down to style, personal traits and electability."

At the same time, however, Fowler said that it was not clear whether Clark would necessarily be singled out for attacks, given the complex dynamics of a crowded candidate field.

On the other hand, Dante Scala, a political scientist at St. Anselm, said, "He could really get jostled around and lose his footing."