WASHINGTON -- Supporters of Wesley Clark feared the worst from Thursday night's debate in Phoenix, and they got it. As expected, the retired general was asked about how he, now a Democratic presidential candidate, praised George W. Bush and his whole administration at a Republican fund-raiser in 2001. Neophyte politician Clark was not prepared with an adequate response.
What was worse, the conqueror of Kosovo seemed diminished by the eight professional politicians debating him. Clark has mastered Bush-bashing talking points, but he seemed smaller, less fluent and less confident than his opponents. While increasing his lead against other Democrats in national polls, he appeared the most poorly equipped candidate on the Orpheum Theatre stage.
Since Clark simultaneously declared himself a Democrat and presidential candidate, not much has gone right for him. The announcement of his candidacy was unimpressive, his campaign manager resigned in protest after two weeks, and he has not been able to take an intraparty punch. Yet, strong sentiment persists within the party that Clark is the Democrat most likely to make George W. Bush a one-term president.
Clark in Phoenix ran into immediate trouble on his pre-Democrat past -- specifically his 2001 appearance at a Lincoln Day Republican dinner in Arkansas. As the Bush tax cuts were making their way to passage, Clark declared: "I'm very glad we've got the great team in office, men like Colin Powell, Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Paul O'Neill, people I know very well. Our President George W. Bush. We need them there."
Clark's handlers did not instruct him to say he was wrong and has seen the light. Instead, the general launched into double talk: "When I did go into a Republican fund-raiser, because I was nonpartisan at that point, then I did acknowledge that I knew his national security team. And like every other American, I wanted the national security team to be successful." An admitted former Nixon and Reagan voter, Clark asserted he voted for Al Gore in 2000 (though he said nothing on the record on behalf of the Democratic candidate).
Clark's lackluster debate performance contrasts with how, in private conversations, he has thrilled his new Democratic friends. They are titillated by a four-star general confiding how terrible President Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld are and how much he claims they are hated by the uniformed military.