Where’s Wesley?

Is the darling candidate of centrist Democrats pulling a political disappearing act?

When retired General Wesley Clark entered the race for the Democratic presidential nomination two months ago, he immediately became the favorite candidate for scores of centrist Democrats. Clark, the Democratic Leadership Council crowd reasoned, could deflate Howard Dean’s lead in the primary race and give the Clintonian centrists another shot at the White House.

Instead, Dean has surged in the polls. While Clark isn’t doing poorly, he certainly hasn’t mounted the sort of rigorous challenge to Dean that was expected — leaving media pundits and politicos wondering if a comeback is even possible.

The former NATO commander entered the campaign with the intent of positioning himself as a more moderate, foreign policy minded alternative to Dean. And it worked, at first. Generally viewed as the only Democratic candidate that could humble Bush on national security issues, Clark immediately took a healthy lead in the polls — as we noted right here just a few months ago.

“Give Wesley Clark his due: he looks great on paper. First in his class at Westpoint, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, victor in Kosovo, architect of Dayton, Rhodes Scholar. Not bad. What’s more, less than a week after declaring for president, Clark is running stronger than anyone could have predicted…The Democratic party is making nice with Clark, reinforcing the notion that the general, unlike the lightweight Dean, can beat Bush on national security.”

But that lead has quickly dribbled away, allowing Dean to reemerge as the Democratic frontrunner. Recent polls show Dean now receives 15% from 558 likely Democratic primary voters nationwide, and Clark has slipped to 10%.
While Clark’s expertise on foreign policy was supposed to be his keynote issue; ironically, it was his position (or lack thereof) on the war in Iraq that got him in trouble. When he fumbled over questions of whether he would have voted for the war or not (given the opportunity), he left voters wondering whether he had the decisive qualities looked-for in presidential candidates. CK Rairden of

The Washington Dispatch writes of his foibles, which have led to an inability to catch up to Dean:

“Clark entered the race with the handprints of the Clintons and the DLC all over him in September for one reason. Shut down Howard Dean’s momentum. So far, he has failed. Clark claimed to be a straight-talker, but quickly turned out to be a four-star fibber. His fabrications seem to now be strengthening Dean while turning a once respected military General into a sad joke.”

Clark recently bowed out of participation in the Iowa caucus, which is often viewed as a crucial campaign ground. Instead, he claimed he wanted to focus on New Hampshire, and although he said Thursday that he would miss the debates there to attend a fundraising event, he is still expected to campaign hard in N.H.

Some critics say Clark’s current lull in the polls certainly doesn’t mean the end for him, and his decision to skip Iowa will ultimately work out in his favor. William Safire suggests in The New York Times that Clark is taking one from Clinton strategists; he’ll let Gephardt do the heavy lifting in Iowa, to pave the way for him to take on Dean in New Hampshire:

“The Clinton political strategy was, as usual, astute: let Dick Gephardt slow Dean down in Iowa, then push Clark hard enough to upset Dean in New Hampshire…”

The Clark vs. Dean issue is far from resolved; and some say it will ultimately come down to a battle between the centrist General and the lefty Vermont governor for the prize spot as the Dem nominee. Clark’s recent announcement that he would accept matching federal funds was expected, considering his late entry into the race (meaning less time to campaign)—but its still unclear whether this will be an advantage or not to Kerry and Dean, both of whom declined funds. Clark has recently been waxing eloquent about his plans for ending the war in Iraq, dealing with terrorist threats, and other pressing foreign policy issues.
Matthew Rothschild from The Progressive speculates on the potential for a Dean/Clark match-up:

“Dean, strengthened by the support of AFSCME and SEIU, will knock Gephardt out in Iowa. Then Dean will trounce Kerry in New Hampshire, which will end his hapless campaign. (Both Gephardt and Kerry crippled themselves by voting for Bush’s Iraq blunder.) With Dean riding high, the Democratic Party establishment will prevail upon Joe Lieberman and John Edwards to bow out so that there will be no one remaining in the field to Dean’s right except Clark. (On the left, Kucinich, Sharpton, and Moseley Braun will nip at Dean’s heels, which is great, according to the anyone-but-Dean crowd.)

Then there will be a battle royal. On the one side will be the grassroots, anti-war, liberal insurgency that has backed Dean to the hilt. On the other, the powerbrokers, the Clintonites, and the pundits, who say Clark is the most electable. They all will try to browbeat voters to be good little boys and girls and vote for the general.”


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