WASHINGTON - When the Democratic presidential candidates gathered the other night in Phoenix for yet another debate, one of the strongest voices against President Bush's war in Iraq was missing. Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, short on campaign funds and charisma, had bowed out of the race a few days earlier.
Old baseball manager Leo Durocher memorably observed that "nice guys finish last," and were he around today he could have had Mr. Graham in mind. For all the harshness of the mild-mannered Floridian's criticism, he could not compete with the aggressiveness of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean for the support of anti-war, anti-Bush Democrats.
Taking up the case now, in his fashion, is retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, only recently a declared Democrat and declared candidate. Unlike the respectful attention paid to Mr. Graham by his competitors in earlier debates, Mr. Clark ran into a buzz saw in Phoenix.
One reason for the difference obviously was the relative standing in the polls of Mr. Graham and Mr. Clark. Mr. Graham, for all of his experience as a governor and senator, was mired in the low single digits. Mr. Clark, upon entry, shot to the front of the pack in national public opinion surveys.
Probably more significant reasons for the attacks on Mr. Clark were his shaky claims of being a Democrat and what his critics on the stage perceived as flip-flops on his position on the Bush war resolution. They also jumped on him for having once praised Mr. Bush and the leading members of his administration before Sept. 11.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the decorated Vietnam War veteran whose claim to be the strongest candidate on national security is most directly challenged by Mr. Clark, was particularly critical. He chided the general for saying at a Republican fund-raiser then that Mr. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld were "the right people" to be in charge.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, the most categorical supporter of Mr. Bush's decision to invade Iraq, took Mr. Clark to task for allowing on entering the race that he "probably" would have supported the war resolution and then backtracking, saying he meant only that he favored going to the United Nations to seek collective action.
Mr. Clark suddenly found himself the favorite bull's-eye of the others, defensively declaring he had voted for former Vice President Al Gore in 2000, not for Mr. Bush, but had "hoped" that Mr. Bush, once elected, would be successful. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina pointedly observed that he himself never shared that "hope."
Mr. Dean, whose position as the most successful anti-war, anti-Bush candidate in the field is now challenged by Mr. Clark, referred to the general's early ambivalence on the invasion but chose largely to let the others go after him, chastising them instead for their support of it. Mr. Dean has been rumored to see Mr. Clark as his running mate while saying it's too early to think about it.
Mr. Dean said Mr. Kerry, Mr. Lieberman, Mr. Edwards and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, by backing the war resolution, "empowered the president to run roughshod over us in the last election. ... If you all had voted no, we could have gone out and made our case to the American people." Mr. Clark echoed him, saying Congress made a mistake giving Mr. Bush a free hand, and it should now be challenging the whole Bush concept of pre-emptive war.
Mr. Clark's impressive military background doubtless gives weight to his critical views on the war. But his earlier words of praise for the leading Republicans carrying it out leave him open to continued gibes from the long-term Democrats running against him. Mr. Clark said in the debate he was now "disappointed" in Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, Mr. Powell and Mr. Rumsfeld - a weak counter to Mr. Dean, who charges they were wrong from the start about taking the country to war.
Such comments by Mr. Clark, if he fails to be the presidential nominee, could make him less desirable as a running mate to any of the other Democratic contenders. Meanwhile, speculation will continue about whether Mr. Graham, out as a candidate for president but a Floridian, will be picked for the No. 2 spot next year.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.