Clark closing the gap and convincing voters

Campaign: The former general is enjoying a rise in popularity in New Hampshire, and opinion polls show him emerging as the chief Democratic rival to Howard Dean.

January 08, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DOVER, N.H. - As voters crowd around him in a packed Elks lodge on a snowy, frigid night, Wesley K. Clark, the retired four-star general, wants to make something clear.

"No one," he says, "is going to accuse me of being unpatriotic or soft, because I'm not. ... I know what fighting is all about, so I can protect this country."

Minutes before, Clark drew hoots and applause with one of his favorite digs at President Bush, about Bush's staged appearance in May to declare an end to major combat in Iraq.

"I don't think patriotism consists of dressing up in a flight suit and prancing around on the deck of an aircraft carrier off of San Diego," Clark says.

In the audience, Krista Hoppe, who said she's undecided, was impressed by the contrast Clark drew. The retired general strikes her as "somebody who's a leader, who actually has a chance against Bush," says Hoppe, 50. "I connected with him."

With less than three weeks before votes are cast here in the first Democratic primary, Clark is enjoying a bump in attention and popularity among New Hampshire's famously fickle voters. His stock might be rising here in part because he is taking advantage of a relative lull in campaigning in the state. While most of his opponents are stumping in Iowa, Clark has chosen to skip the Jan. 19 caucuses there, the first presidential contest, to try to build support in New Hampshire.

His late-blooming candidacy is drawing larger crowds and deeper interest in the state. And national and statewide polls show him poised to emerge as the chief rival to Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and front-runner, who had already gained sizable popularity before Clark joined the contest in September.

A strong showing here would give Clark a springboard to the contests that will follow, propelling him toward potential victories in Southern states where the slim, silver-haired former NATO commander, who was raised in Little Rock, Ark., is regarded as more popular than most of his Democratic rivals.

His appeal extends beyond this tiny but pivotal state, according to a new USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll conducted Jan. 2-5, showing Clark essentially in a dead heat with Dean nationally. Clark trailed Dean by just 4 percentage points - 24 percent to 20 percent - within the margin of error. The survey showed Clark doubling his support, from 10 percent to 20 percent, in three weeks, with Dean slipping 7 points.

Surveys of New Hampshire voters also show Clark gaining. An American Research Group poll conducted Jan. 4-6 showed him almost even with Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts for second place in New Hampshire, with 16 percent to Kerry's 13 percent - a statistical tie. (Dean is at a commanding 36 percent).

Other opinion polls show Clark closing in on Dean in Arizona, which will hold its primary Feb. 3.

Sensing that momentum may be on Clark's side, Karen Hiller, 47, says she came to the Elks this evening to hedge her bets. Hiller, a reading tutor who says she backs Dean because she admires his straight-talking style, is nothing if not a realist.

"I wanted to hear what [Clark] has to say just in case, in the long run, he ends up being the nominee," she says. "It seems like Clark just may take over in time."

That will depend on whether Clark can ride the surge he's enjoying now, convincing voters in New Hampshire and beyond that he is more than just a military man and is well-versed on domestic issues as well. As primary day nears and Dean, Kerry and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina turn their attention back to New Hampshire, Clark will have to fight to hang on to whatever gains he is making.

Money could help him do so. Clark has made up for lost time in fund-raising, having collected about $10 million in the last three months of 2003. That total eclipses all the other Democrats except for Dean.

Clark campaign aides, who once said they would be happy to finish fourth in New Hampshire, have nudged it up a notch to third. But they're struggling to keep predictions low.

"We don't want to create too-too much expectation," says Chris Lehane, a senior adviser to Clark.

And for all his quick gains, the candidate has not completely mastered the art of retail politics. He acknowledges that he still has catching-up to do.

"I came in late, and New Hampshire voters want to meet you, and they want to learn about you," says Clark, 60, during a brief interview as he shuttles between campaign stops. "They want to feel what kind of personality you have."

With crowds, the candidate seems confident and affable. He peppers his speeches with folksy touches. Asked at a town hall meeting about his stance on gun control, he notes that as a boy in Little Rock, "I was pretty good shooting beer cans in the creek."

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