Gaining in Poll, Retired General Becomes a Target
PETERBOROUGH, N.H., Jan. 7 -- With his poll numbers inching steadily upward here in New Hampshire and nationally, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark on Wednesday received the most sincere compliment front-runner Howard Dean's campaign can give to a presidential rival: pointed barbs questioning Clark's standing as a "real Democrat," and recalling his trail of ambivalent comments about whether he would have backed President Bush on the Iraq war.
Clark's campaign, which like others in the Democratic nominating contest is trying to establish itself as the leading alternative to the former Vermont governor, was buoyed by an independent daily tracking poll showing he is making modest but clear gains in New Hampshire -- at the expense of Dean and Sen. John F. Kerry, from neighboring Massachusetts. In recent days, the survey said, the former commander of U.S. forces in Europe has moved from 12 percent to 16 percent support, while Dean has dropped from 39 percent to 35 percent. Perhaps most significant, Clark is now a shade ahead of Kerry, who urgently needs to gain second place in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary on Jan. 27 if his candidacy is to remain viable.
These hints of fluidity in a race that Dean has dominated were being taken seriously by Dean's backers in this state. At a Clark event here, Dean campaign workers were handing out fliers titled "Wesley Clark: Real Democrat?" The literature included such recycled headlines as "Clark voted Republican for Decades," and "CLARK PRO WAR" and "CLARK NOW ANTI-WAR."
Kerry, too, was taking notice of Clark's progress -- and fighting back with themes similar to Dean's. Unlike Clark, Kerry is also competing in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses, where most recent polls have shown Dean ahead but in a fight against Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), who has pinned his hopes on a late surge there.
Kerry flew from Iowa to Manchester on Tuesday night and was up early Wednesday with an anti-Clark message. "Unlike some other candidates, I have 35 years' experience fighting for the Democratic values of the party," he said, "never having voted for Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan or others. I've been a Democrat all my life."
Clark's spokesmen professed themselves delighted by the attention from Dean and others. "They are feeling Wes Clark's hot breath on the napes of their necks," said Clark communications strategist Chris Lehane, who last year left Kerry's campaign amid staff tension. He mocked Dean's recent complaint that Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe was not doing more to enforce a civil debate among the nine candidates seeking the nomination. "Howard Dean was pleading for the DNC as if the DNC was his mother to protect him from others in the field. Now in the face of changing polls, suddenly he's begun to engage in the same old politics."
In addition to the New Hampshire tracking poll by American Research Group Inc., a national survey for USA Today and CNN, conducted by the Gallup Organization, showed Clark climbing to within 4 percentage points of Dean as the first choice of Democrats around the country. Dean had the backing of 24 percent, down by 3 points from mid-December, and Clark had 20 percent, up by 8 points from last month.
Tricia Enright, a Dean spokeswoman, said the barbs were merely taking note of Clark's past statements and were not at odds with the Dean campaign's appeal in recent days for Democrats to strike a more positive tone. "I don't think it's inappropriate to point out the facts," she said.
Geoff Garin, Clark's pollster, asserted in a conference call with reporters that the campaign's surveys show the candidate leading in Oklahoma and running strongly in South Carolina, Arizona, Wisconsin and North Carolina.
Kerry's day included a New Hampshire standard: the purchase of a jacket at Timberland headquarters in Stratham. Substantively, his emphasis was a critique of tax plans offered by Clark, Dean and Gephardt. He questioned whether Clark's plan, unveiled this week, to eliminate taxes on people earning less than $50,000 a year "kind of excuses them from a sense of responsibility for the country."
Where to start? Dean's campaign quotes Clark once saying he had not been particularly partisan in the past while at the same time claiming that he was a Republican until recently. Dean unequivocally supported a version of a resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq and then makes extremely tenuous and disingenuous arguments that Clark was once "Pro War."
Then there's that other child of privilege, John Kerry, claiming that under Clark's tax plan, families pulling in up to $50,000 a year will bear no responsibility as citizens because they don't pay income tax. Never mind that they are still subject to payroll taxes (social security, medicare), property taxes, state income taxes (in some cases), sales taxes, etc. Kerry can't grasp that most Americans can't mortgage their home for a cool $6 million (and even fewer can't count on their heiress wife to later bail them out) in order to pursue a personal fantasy that has become a lost cause. And Kerry is claiming to be a stronger Democrat than Clark just because he has had a (D) by his name for 35 years?