Inside the numbers: Wesley Clark

Posted: Sep 30, 2003 12:00 AM

Recent polls show retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark leading the race for the Democratic nomination for president. But Clark's early performance suggests he has a long way to go before he can be considered battle ready to take on George W. Bush.

Not everyone sees it that way. Many political pundits believe Republicans are bashing Clark because he poses the greatest threat to Bush in a general election contest. But the off-the-record opinion among most GOP strategists is that Howard Dean and his charismatic, grassroots campaign is the one that's truly catching on. Still others harbor fears that Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, will belie her reputation in GOP circles as an overrated threat and jump into the fray herself.

As for Clark, I have to question whether his apparent lead -- virtually instantaneous with the announcement of his candidacy -- is real. First, I've yet to be convinced most Americans even know who he is. He's never been a household name, and if he is one now, it's mainly because some media are force-feeding him on the nation. More significantly, anyone who has heard his vague positions on the issues, both foreign and domestic, must recognize that Clark is not yet ready for prime time.

Nevertheless, many recent surveys show Gen. Clark ahead of the field of Democratic presidential hopefuls. So it's only fair to view his candidacy in light of its infant status, and to consider the good general's chances of winning the big battle in November 2004.

His top selling point is that he adds a needed dose of middle-of-the-road moderation to the Democratic field. Paradoxically, that's also his problem. Democratic Party leaders these days don't seem to abide any form of moderation. In fact, top Democratic operatives spent much time last week in trying to paint Clark as a Republican wolf in sheep's clothing. Partly because of it, Clark was forced to kick off his first debate appearance with a pre-emptive pledge of his devotion to the party and the left-leaning positions for which it stands.

Yes, Clark is a general. That would seem to automatically blunt the charge leveled at many of his Democratic opponents, including former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, that they are unpatriotic for having opposed the war in Iraq. In truth, however, Clark's views on the war seem muddled. He might as well play a toned-down hawk on the issue, though. Dean seems to have already captured the hearts of most Democrats who passionately opposed the American-led invasion.

The fact is that Clark likely is going to spend so much time trying to persuade core Democrats that he is one of them, and that his lack of political experience isn't an operational deadweight around his neck, that he will have little opportunity remaining to showcase the characteristics that supposedly make him a potential savior for his party. Again, paradoxically, those selling points are that he isn't a Washington insider and that he in fact is guilty of having past close ties to the GOP. Both of those attributes would make him more appealing in a showdown with Bush than anything his fellow Democratic hopefuls could muster.

For Clark, the real test will be his ability or inability to avoid the trap the other Democrats are falling into. None seems able to offer a detailed plan to spur economic growth. Apparently that's at least partly because they are too focused on the alluring but flawed strategy of trying to create some sort of overarching "Iraq-gate" scandal with which to destroy President Bush. Clark and his fellow Democratic contenders would do well to remember that the last Republican to face accusations of foreign policy scandal was then-Vice President George H.W. Bush during the Iran-Contra affair. He became president not long thereafter.

Not that a scandal couldn't prevent George W. from winning re-election. For example, if it emerges that White House officials indeed revealed the identity of a covert intelligence operative in order to embarrass the operative's spouse, as has been alleged, the president would have to react forcefully and quickly to repair the damage. But few believe Bush himself would condone such behavior. Only a Nixon-like cover-up is likely to harm the president's long-term political health.

As with most presidential contests, this one will hinge on the economy. If things improve over the next year, no number of stars on Wesley Clark's uniform is going to defeat Bush. But if corporate tills, government coffers and private pocketbooks don't start filling up, then a fresh face with a determined air about it -- a la Clark -- might pose a legitimate threat to the administration.

General Clark needs a brilliant battle plan. He must first persuade Democrats that he's not a Republican, then persuade Republicans and independents that he leans at least a little to the right of center. And all the while, he must hope the president's economic plan stalls like an old tank in the desert sand.