Clark regains his voice

October 24, 2003|By Jules Witcover

MANCHESTER, N.H. - Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, sidelined for several days by laryngitis, was back on the presidential campaign trail here the other day in strong voice - both in volume and in a verbal assault of President Bush.

In a speech on his economic proposals, the general was short on specific details but long on his list of criticisms, going beyond the economy to Mr. Bush's decision to invade Iraq and his conduct of the aftermath.

Mr. Clark's condemnations of the president can help assuage Democrats who continue to doubt his credentials as a bona fide party member, under scrutiny as a result of earlier favorable comments about Mr. Bush and other Republican leaders.

The enthusiastic response to a speech delivered with the supreme confidence of a former supreme commander of NATO was in keeping with recent polls here.

The latest, for the Concord Monitor, has Mr. Clark an impressive third for a late-starting candidate, with 14 percent of the total, behind two long-running New Englanders, former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont with 30 percent and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts with 18.

A third New Englander, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, runs a weak fourth in this poll as he has in other surveys in New Hampshire, eclipsing his much stronger showing in national polls. Mr. Lieberman's decision to skip the Iowa caucuses and concentrate on the Granite State is variously described here from wise to desperate.

Judging from the reception to Mr. Clark's speech and a street walk in Nashua the day before, the general has at least a toehold in this state, where Democratic sentiment against Mr. Bush's war may not be as high as in Iowa but remains strong nevertheless. Mr. Clark also is skipping Iowa.

Voters encountered in Nashua shops on Main Street were most interested in telling Mr. Clark their concerns about the economy, unemployment and health care. But some also freely expressed their worries about the situation in Iraq.

John Koutsos, the Republican owner of a shoe shop, said he felt that the president was taking a "too heavy-handed approach to foreign policy" and that he would vote in the Democratic primary, which state law permits via a temporary party switch on primary day.

As a neophyte candidate, Mr. Clark combines a smiling, cordial demeanor with caution in dealing with reporters after an early flip-flop in which he first said he probably would have supported Mr. Bush's war resolution and then backed off.

As a military leader, Mr. Clark does not project the aura of a Dwight Eisenhower, but he doesn't have the intimidation of a Douglas MacArthur, either. For Democratic voters who fear that front-runner Dean lacks the stuff to take on Mr. Bush over the war, Mr. Clark obviously has a stronger background and credentials.

On the domestic front, however, his pitch is no different from the one all the other Democratic candidates are leveling at Mr. Bush - that his huge tax cuts benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle class.

Mr. Clark dubs his agenda "the New American Patriotism," saying, "There is nothing more American - nothing more patriotic - than speaking out in defense of freedom, questioning authority and holding your leaders accountable."

Questioning authority, to be sure, is anathema to the military mindset. But Mr. Clark reminds voters that he's not in the military anymore and that nobody has earned the right more than he has to challenge authority without being called unpatriotic.

If the Clark candidacy's best bet is as an alternative to Mr. Dean, about whom many Democrats have doubts for various reasons, his standing as a military hero willing to challenge his president on the war and on conditions at home can prove to be formidable.

But he is still to be battle-tested in hand-to-hand political combat against rivals warily taking his measure and in running the gantlet of an inquiring and skeptical press corps.

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

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