General under fire

Posted: Oct 13, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

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.