Robert Novak

Such pleasure, however, does not solve Clark's problems of getting nominated. His recent performance in Iowa on Sen. Tom Harkin's candidate forum is regarded by one supporter as only a "feint." Too late to build an organization essential for success in the Iowa caucuses, Clark is likely to skip them. With Iowa gone, his backers were alarmed by last week's American Research poll showing Clark in fifth place in New Hampshire with 5 percent (with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean well in front with 29 percent).

A prominent Republican who Thursday watched his first debate with these candidates was impressed by Dean as the most attractive personality. But Dean and Rep. Richard Gephardt were hammered by Sen. John Kerry for wiping out all Bush tax cuts -- not just upper bracket reductions.

Kerry is faster on his feet than his adversaries. An African-American businesswoman in the audience raised an issue uncongenial to Democratic politicians when she complained that taxes were strangling her enterprise. Unresponsively, Gephardt plugged his plan: "It basically gives you a refundable tax credit equal to 60 percent of the cost of whatever (health care) plan your employee and you choose." Kerry jumped in to ask the woman: "Do you have health care for your employees?" The answer was no. So, said Kerry, "what he said to you doesn't even apply."

But Kerry was embarrassed by his campaign team. "I've just been handed a document," said moderator Judy Woodruff of CNN. It came from the Kerry quick reaction team at the debate site, accusing Dean as governor of trying to "kick Vermont seniors off their prescription drug plan." Dean denied it. Kerry defended the claim, but added, with a look that reflected his displeasure: "I didn't know they (his staffers) were saying that." Although Gen. Clark was not ready for prime time, his experienced competitors did not look much better.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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