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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But these missteps have done little to stop Clark's rise in New Hampshire, and the Kerry supporter handing out attack literature at the Franklin Pierce Law Center is, for the most part, ignored. Inside, a packed crowd waits patiently for Clark, who starts his speech 40 minutes late. It's a diverse group of voters, equal parts students and senior citizens. Pop music is piped in over a loudspeaker--at one point, Madonna's "Beautiful Stranger" plays. Madonna is a Clark supporter. But the general, one campaign aide says, is not necessarily a Madonna fan. (He's told reporters that his favorite music act is the band Journey. "It's this song called 'Don't Stop Believin'," he said. "It's the music I remember.")

When Clark enters the lecture hall, the audience explodes into applause. A few people stand. Others snap pictures.

For the most part, the speech is Democratic boilerplate. "We're short on homeland security and long on homeland insecurity," Clark says. But there are a few interesting ideas. For example, in order to make us more secure, Clark proposes a "combined Joint Counterterrorism Strike-Force," formed under NATO, which would include troops from countries outside the alliance, among them "Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates." The strike force's mission would be to go into the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan and "capture or kill" Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders. Says Clark, "We've always had the ability to confront al Qaeda and defeat it." The implication is that the Bush administration, for some reason or another, doesn't want to.

After the speech, Clark's campaign bus, the "Wes Express," spirits journalists to a "Conversation with Clark" in Hudson, about 30 miles away. As the press van makes its way toward the event, where Clark will answer questions from voters, I talk with a reporter from one of the major news networks who has followed Clark for several months. It's the usual chitchat--where we're from, where we went to school--and after a few minutes, we fall back into silence.

For a moment, anyway. "It's funny," the reporter says eventually, under her breath. "I can't believe [Clark's] doing so well all of a sudden."

"Why is that?" I ask.

"Because he's so damn crazy."

THE GENERAL IS NOT REALLY CRAZY. But, when you listen to him speak, it's hard not to notice that he has a slightly paranoid view of the Bush administration. He's said, for example, that the White House tried to have him fired from CNN, where he was a commentator during the Iraq war. He's said that "there's no way" the Bush administration "can walk away from its responsibility in 9/11." He meant that the administration did not do enough to protect America from terrorist attack--because it was preoccupied with war against Saddam Hussein.

In his recent book, "Winning Modern Wars," as well as on the stump, Clark says that, in a visit to the Pentagon several months after September 11, he had a conversation with "a man with three stars who used to work for me." Clark's former subordinate showed him a "list of countries" that the Bush administration had targeted for invasion. According to Clark, the list was part of a "five-year plan" for regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia, and Sudan. Clark has presented no evidence to back this up, other than what he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette a few months ago: "You only have to listen to the gossip around Washington and to hear what the neoconservatives are saying, and you will get the flavor of this."

Last week, Clark found new "proof" for his theory. In an interview former Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill gave to "60 Minutes," as well as in "The Price of Loyalty," a new book by journalist Ron Suskind, O'Neill charges that the administration was planning to invade Iraq as early as January 2001. On the day of the "60 Minutes" interview, Clark released this statement: "Today, Paul O'Neill confirmed what I have been saying all along: The Bush administration's focus on Iraq was not tied to the war on terror. It was a long-standing plan that was discussed from the opening days of the Bush White House."

O'Neill's allegations--which are actually quite different from what Clark has alleged--have made their way into the general's stump speech. At the Franklin Pierce Law Center, Clark said, "The only name we hear [from Bush] is Saddam Hussein, and the only country we hear about is Iraq. According to former Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill, this isn't a coincidence: The Bush administration started planning their actions against Iraq during their first days in the White House . . . despite being warned that our greatest threat was Osama bin Laden."

The charge that President Bush was plotting regime change in Iraq and elsewhere early in his presidency has become the Clark campaign's central foreign-policy issue. "The Bush administration has an unhealthy obsession with Iraq," says Bill Buck, a Clark spokesman. "9/11 was an excuse to topple Hussein. That's what we're going to talk about."

And they're going to talk about it at places like Alvirne High School, in Hudson, the scene of Wednesday night's "Conversation with Clark." Like the general's speech in Concord, the "conversation" takes place before a standing-room-only audience, which is an achievement in itself on a night so cold that the Kerry supporters picketing outside resemble nothing so much as screaming, adolescent Eskimos.

Before the general enters the school cafeteria, where the conversation will take place, I watch a screening of "American Son," Clark's campaign film, made by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the Hollywood producer responsible for Bill Clinton's syrupy biopic, "The Man from Hope." Thomason is one of many Clinton allies who have signed on with the general. Others include former Arkansas senator Dale Bumpers, former Clinton economic officials Mickey Kantor and Laura Tyson, former State Department spokesman James Rubin, Democratic congressmen Rahm Emmanuel and Charles Rangel--and, to some extent, former President Clinton himself, who speaks with Clark campaign chair Eli Segal daily and, according to the New York Post, has made fundraising calls in support of Clark (Clinton's office denied the report).

Clinton has not made an official endorsement. But many of his surrogates will descend on New Hampshire on Saturday, January 17, to campaign for the general. They will be joined by, among others, Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Samantha Power, and the filmmakers Barry Levinson and Michael Moore. "These are all individuals involved with the campaign," says Bill Buck, when I ask him if Clinton had any role in organizing the January 17 event. "They've each expressed interest in being involved."

The Clinton connection has its advantages. It's helped Clark collect money--he'd raised about $10 million by December 31; only Howard Dean raised more. And it's also helped a neophyte gain his political footing. Signature Clinton phrases have made their way into Clark's stump speech. On Monday, for example, during his appearance at Child Health Services, Clark told the press that no parent who "works hard and plays by the rules" should raise a child in poverty. Clark may not be a political natural, as journalist Joe Klein has called the former president, but he is a quick study.

You get a sense of how far the Clark campaign has come when you watch "American Son." The slickly produced, 15-minute film attempts to sell General Clark's main strength: his biography. It is largely successful in doing so. One voter tells Clark after the film that, while he "expected to be impressed" when he showed up to see the general, he did not expect to have tears in his eyes. Campaign aides say this is a not uncommon reaction. The Clark campaign has already distributed 50,000 copies of the DVD to New Hampshire voters, and one Clark strategist tells me there are plans to distribute 20,000 more.

Clark enters the cafeteria to another standing ovation, after an introduction by a teacher from the school, who says the candidate "has spent countless hours thinking about the tough issues."

Maybe. Clark has definitely spent countless hours delivering his stump speech, which he has honed to perfection. By the end, he has the audience on its feet. Afterwards, the crowd mobs Clark. Ahmad Jackson, the general's personal assistant, has to pull him away from talking to every last voter. The scene seemed to confirm what Chris Lehane, Clark's senior communications strategist, told the Washington Post recently: "Something's happening here."

But what exactly? One morning in January, I meet with Andy Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center and an expert on New Hampshire's political demographics. Smith says that while Howard Dean's hard-core supporters still support the former Vermont governor, less-committed voters are wary of Dean's anger. These voters now support Clark. "If you think of the Dean campaign as a balloon," Smith tells me, "the air is seeping out a little bit. The message that's come from the other camps that Dean is unelectable is starting to take hold. This is the time of the campaign where moderate and conservative Democratic voters turn their attention to the election."

As we talk, Smith fidgets with his empty coffee cup. The main problem for Clark, he says, is that his campaign operation is not as well-oiled as Dean's. "I don't think Clark has people with the sort of intimate knowledge of politics that Dean's people have," he tells me. "A lot of the Clinton people have been through campaigns here, but not recently."

Clark's main advantage, on the other hand, is that he's the only candidate who has proved he can raise money as quickly as Dean. Says Smith, "The primary process will come down to money. It always comes down to money. If there's a bunch-up, if there are close races in both Iowa and New Hampshire, then Clark can go to the other states, the southern, more conservative states, and say, 'I'm the only guy who can stop Dean.'"

"Is he?" I ask. "Does Clark even have a chance?"

Smith pauses. "It's a slim chance," he says. "But it's a chance."

Matthew Continetti is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.