10 little Democrats

National | POLITICS: Clark's late entrance shakes up a Democratic race that lacked star power

Issue: "Isabel's slow march," Sept. 27, 2003

And then there were 10. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark elbowed his way into a packed presidential field on Sept. 17, vowing to "bring people together in the great tradition of the Democratic Party."

In his hometown of Little Rock, Ark., before a small crowd that seemed dwarfed by the national media presence, Mr. Clark blasted the Bush administration for its handling of both foreign policy and the economy. The president's economic policies, he said, "have cost us more jobs than our economy has had the energy to create," while "more than 100,000 American troops are fighting abroad and once again Americans are concerned about their civil liberties."

The long-awaited announcement-surely one of the worst-kept political secrets of the year-threatened to re-write the Democrats' primary-season script. The tall, telegenic general looks like a president out of Central Casting, yet he's never played any political role in his life. That may be more of a help than a hindrance: After months of making nice, the nine other contenders appeared poised to take off the kid gloves and start attacking voting records, especially that of the front-runner, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. With no political record to beat up on, Mr. Clark may be at least temporarily immune to the bloodletting that appears imminent.

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His late start in the long primary process could also be an advantage. Mr. Clark's announcement, which was carried live on all the cable news channels and breathlessly discussed by pundits for days beforehand, proved the power of novelty in a race that had thus far failed to provide much excitement. Mr. Clark's splashy entrance contrasted sharply to that of John Edwards, the North Carolina senator who made his hapless candidacy official just 24 hours earlier. Mr. Edwards's pro forma announcement, coming after months of active campaigning, produced barely a ripple of much-needed publicity.

With news media resources already stretched thin by the busy primary, the most obvious losers seemed to be obscure candidates like Mr. Edwards, Sen. Bob Graham, and former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, all of whom desperately need the exposure that Gen. Clark seems sure to soak up. Gov. Dean, too, could find himself pushed out of the limelight by the entrance of a newcomer with the "outsider" credentials that Mr. Dean has been careful to cultivate.

But for all his advantages, Mr. Clark also faces considerable hurdles on the road to the nominating convention. He'll need big money to run a credible campaign in early primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, and he's already $10 million or so behind the leading contenders. Mr. Dean, John Kerry, Richard Gephardt, and Joe Lieberman have also had months to organize the grassroots in key states, locking up support among the party faithful.

Still, a new Gallup Poll released shortly before Mr. Clark's announcement showed that the general should not be counted out just because he waited so long to jump in. Even before he made his candidacy official, Mr. Clark placed fifth in a poll of Democratic voters, with 10 percent. That put him just 6 points behind the leader, Mr. Gephardt-an impressive feat for someone whose name was not yet on the ballot. Indeed, Mr. Clark is in a much better position than former candidates like Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, who were barely more than an asterisk in the polls at this point in their campaigns.


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