Stature Isn't Enough

What can Gen. Wesley Clark add to the race, with nine Democrats already running? Sure, Clark has military experience—a 34-year active-duty career in which he rose to the rank of four-star general. "I think I'm the best person to look after the future of this country and keep us safe," he told an interviewer. But John Kerry also has military experience. And Democrats are not exactly a warrior culture. "I don't think the activist base of the Democratic Party is hungering for a military candidacy," commented David Nyhan, a syndicated columnist and seasoned New Hampshire observer.

Yes, Clark is a Washington outsider. "I've never been in elected politics at all," Clark said. "I believe in public service in uniform." But Howard Dean is running as a Washington outsider, too. Dean constantly attacks his rivals as "Washington Democrats" who sold the party out on Iraq.

And, yes, Clark is a Southerner. But so are John Edwards and Bob Graham.

What Clark brings, uniquely, is a combination of the above. "He actually combines a number of attributes that I think are attractive in some of our candidates, and he has the potential to cause heartburn across this field," said Doug Hattaway, communications director for Al Gore's 2000 campaign.

When Clark declared his candidacy last week, it may have been a turning point in the 2004 campaign. Clark instantly vaulted ahead of the other contenders, according to a Newsweek poll—14 percent for Clark, 12 percent each for Dean and Joe Lieberman, and 10 percent for Kerry, with the other candidates in single digits. For a newcomer like Clark to move to the top of the pack so quickly says something about the rest of the field.

The same Newsweek poll shows President Bush continuing to lose support. The president's approval rating is down to 51 percent, his lowest ever. Approval of his handling of Iraq has dropped below 50 percent for the first time. Disapproval of his handling of the economy is up to 57 percent.

Bush is looking more and more vulnerable. But to whom? In a trial heat for November 2004, Bush led Dean by 14 points (52 percent to 38 percent). He led Clark by a statistically insignificant 4 points (47 percent to 43 percent). Bush looks beatable, and Clark looks electable. That's the secret of Clark's appeal.

Clark acknowledges that he voted for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Is he a real Democrat? Democrats aren't asking too many questions, but he seems OK on the party's litmus-test issues. He describes himself as pro-choice on abortion. He supports affirmative action. While he does not support gay marriage, he says, "I support civil unions."

He is fluent in Spanish, having learned the language when he served as chief of the military's Southern Command in Latin America. And talk about covering all the bases: His father was Jewish, he was raised a Southern Baptist, and he converted to Catholicism when he married.

Clark is critical of Bush's tax cuts. He says he would "protect the tax cuts ordinary people have received" while repealing the cuts for the rich. "I don't exclude the possibility" of raising taxes, he said. "You can't have guns and butter at the same time."

The general's late entry into the race is causing some problems for his campaign. Fundraising, though, may not be one of them—not if Clark solidifies his front-runner status and continues to run best against Bush. The more serious problem is the campaign's apparent lack of structure and strategy. On some big issues, such as universal health insurance, the candidate simply hasn't figured out his message. "I don't know enough to give you a comprehensive answer at this point," Clark told an Iowa voter.

Clark's political inexperience became embarrassingly clear when the general was forced to reverse himself on what is supposed to be the defining issue of his campaign—the war in Iraq. When reporters asked him the day after he entered the race whether he would have voted for the congressional resolution authorizing the U.S. invasion, Clark's immediate response was, "I don't know if I would have or not.... On balance, I probably would have voted for it."

That answer sent shock waves through the Democratic Party. The next day, Clark reversed himself, saying, "I never would have voted for war. What I would have voted for is leverage. Leverage for the United States to avoid a war." Democrats have to ask themselves a troubling question: Is this guy ready for prime time?

What has defined the Democratic race so far is the intense anger at Bush among rank-and-file Democrats. It caught the Washington-based candidates by surprise. And it gave Dean his early momentum.

Can Clark tap into the Democrats' fury at Bush? Maybe. "It must be $150 [billion], $160 billion of the American people's money that's being taken from us—from these children on this playground—it's being put into Iraq," he told an interviewer in Little Rock.

Clark has one big advantage over Dean and all of the other Democratic contenders: stature. What gives Clark stature? Three words: supreme allied commander. Plus Rhodes scholar. Plus first in his class at West Point. But all that stature won't give Clark victory in the Democratic race unless he uses it to frame a case against Bush.