Wesley Clark sells himself as party man

October 08, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - The closest thing yet to a face-off between former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark for support of anti-war Democrats came here the other day at a meeting of the Democratic National Committee at which all 10 of the candidates for the party's 2004 presidential nominees displayed their oratorical wares.

Mr. Dean was his customary bombastic self, hammering President Bush on the fluctuating rationales for invading Iraq and declaring that "as commander in chief, I will never send Americans to fight in a foreign land without telling the truth about why they're fighting there."

He charged that the Bush administration had handed out tax cuts to corporate friends but provided nothing to check incoming ship cargoes or to pay for the destruction of Russian nuclear stockpiles. His message, as usual, sought to tap into the deep anti-Bush sentiment in the party.

Mr. Dean, in an earlier speech to the DNC, had ruffled some centrist feathers by saying he represented "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," an old line of the late liberal Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. But as he has emerged as a potential nominee, he has downplayed the line and campaigned essentially as a middle-roader, except on the war.

Mr. Clark, in his first appearance before the men and women who constitute the board of directors of the party, spent most of his time working to convince them that after 34 years of military service, during which he had no obvious political affiliation, he qualifies as a full-fledged Democrat now.

"I'm pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, pro-health care, pro-labor," he reported, "and if that ain't being a Democrat, I must be at the wrong meeting." The words, delivered with a broad smile, were welcome to Democratic ears that had heard of some Clark votes for Republican presidents in the past.

His reason for openly declaring himself a Democrat now, he said, is that "everything I fought for [in the Army] has been unraveling." Since then, Mr. Clark reported, he voted for former Vice President Al Gore in 2000 and has been campaigning for Democratic candidates.

In assessing both major parties upon retirement from the military, he said, he concluded that the Republicans "believe in putting up walls and calling names across the Atlantic," and so "I realized there was only one place for me, and let me tell you, it's great to be home."

Having thus moved in, Mr. Clark proceeded to tell the assemblage of longtime Democrats "who we are," praising every Democratic president from FDR to Bill Clinton. And in a dig at Mr. Bush, he said he believes in "building bridges" and "international institutions" and in the "use of force only as a last resort. ... We're not a country that sheds blood before every other option is exhausted."

Mr. Clark's recitation of his right to belong in the Democratic club was an acknowledgment of the first hurdle he must clear as he makes his late-starting bid to overtake Mr. Dean. The Vermonter has achieved front-runner status in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, in part on the strength of his early opposition to the invasion of Iraq.

The general's military record and similar opposition to the invasion offer Democratic voters an alternative to Mr. Dean and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a decorated Vietnam War hero who voted to give Mr. Bush authority to go to war but since has been critical of the aftermath.

Mr. Clark has made visits to both New Hampshire and Iowa, drawing crowds but without much grass-roots organization yet. George Bruno, a former New Hampshire party chair now heading the Clark campaign there, says, "We're already playing catch-up," but with polls indicating up to 35 percent of state Democrats are undecided, "there's a big piece available to Clark."

Kathy Sullivan, the current state party chair, says she thinks Mr. Clark's entry "has kind of stopped the Dean momentum" in New Hampshire. "There were signs of Dean pulling away here, and I think Clark had something to do with that. You know New Hampshire," she says, "we've got to see them [the candidates] three or four times."

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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