The Magazine

Does Clark Have a Prayer?

From the January 26, 2004 issue: With the general in New Hampshire.

Jan 26, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 19 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Manchester, New Hampshire

IT'S AROUND 1 P.M. on Tuesday, January 13, and General Wesley K. Clark, the former supreme commander of NATO and Democratic presidential candidate, is visiting Child Health Services, a clinic for low-income children. He's locked in conversation with one Janet Clark, the director of special medical pediatrics, who has worked here for 20 years, and who is not, she is quick to say, related to the candidate. She mentions that the center engages in "child advocacy."

"What is 'advocacy'?" asks the general, interrupting. "That's a term of art. What does it mean? Lay it out for me: A, B, C, and D."

Janet Clark proceeds to explain, and the general stares at her with wide, unblinking brown eyes. After the impromptu lecture, he shakes hands with the staff. He donates a stuffed animal to the toy bank. He takes a quick tour of the facility, which is decorated in bold, primary colors, and asks questions about children's health issues, the clinic's funding, and what he as president could do to help.

During the general's tour, I chat with the receptionist. She mentions that John Edwards is scheduled to deliver a speech at Child Health Services later this afternoon. Clark's staffers, she confides, "weren't too happy about that."

They had reason not to be. Edwards, who has visited the clinic before, will speak in the "community room," a relatively spacious area with over a dozen chairs for press. Clark, meanwhile, has been assigned the cramped "adolescent waiting area," where about 50 journalists, photographers, and camera crews are jostling for space around the square table where Clark will hold a discussion with employees. "You'll need to pick a smaller room next time," grouses a CNN cameraman to a Clark campaign aide.

"We're still humble," says Jamal Simmons, Clark's spokesman. "We don't expect anybody to show up."

That's because Clark, who is 59, is an unconventional candidate and a latecomer to Democratic politics. Until October he was a registered Independent. He's given talks at Republican fundraisers, and has intermittently praised the Bush administration. His background is full of superlatives--a Rhodes scholar, he graduated at the top of his class at West Point and is a champion swimmer, a retired four-star general, and a lover of Plato. But the last time he ran for office, it was for president of his 12th-grade class. He lost.

Hence the surprise at the Clark surge here in recent weeks. As the other Democratic candidates flocked to Iowa in preparation for the January 19 caucuses (in which Clark is not competing), and went to work beating each other up with attack ads and verbal barbs, General Clark stayed in New Hampshire, which holds its primary on January 27. As Joe Trippi, frontrunner Howard Dean's campaign manager, put it, "[Clark's] been shooting free throws by himself on one end of the court while we've been throwing elbows at each other at the other end."

From Clark's point of view, it's working. His poll numbers are up, as is attendance at the now-daily "Conversations with Clark" town-hall meetings, which are held throughout the state. One poll, from the American Research Group, shows that Clark has edged out Senator John Kerry for second place in New Hampshire, and is within 5 points of Dean. The Clark boomlet has attracted media from around the country and beyond--a crew from ZDF, a German television station, is here, along with CNN, ABC, CBS, and others. "I'd say we doubled our press every day for the last couple of days," says one of Clark's press aides.

The other candidates, of course, are doing their best to drag Clark back into the mosh pit. Nervously eyeing the general's ascent in the polls, Howard Dean called Clark a "Republican." The Lieberman campaign sent several pairs of flip-flops to Clark 2004 headquarters, taunting the candidate over his conflicting statements about the war in Iraq. Not to be left out, the Kerry campaign has dispatched volunteers to crash Clark events, where they pass out flyers attacking the general's record.

Clark hasn't fought back. Instead, he's labeled the attacks "old-style politics." Which is, come to think of it, a good phrase to describe Clark's behavior as he sits down to his "roundtable" with a group of social workers and pediatricians who work at Child Health Services. Clark seems tired; his voice is hoarse, and he rushes through parts of his stump speech: "America needs leadership," he says. He's "going to put America back to work." He's "a big believer in family values," which means, among other things, "taking care of the environment."

It's standard Democratic primary fare, until Clark notices that the clinicians are uncomfortable with the dozens of cameras looming over their shoulders. Don't worry about the cameras, he tells them. A good way to ignore the whirr and buzz: "Imagine we're microbes on Mars."