SLOW TRAIN TO CLARKSVILLE

From tomorrow’s WaPo: Clark Express Is Losing Speed

Clark’s momentum in the state has slowed since the victory of Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) in Monday’s Iowa caucuses. Clark’s own polls show that undecided voters have moved toward the Iowa winner. “Had anyone considered that John Kerry would win?” Bennett asked. “Kerry’s got a lot of momentum here.”

In other words, this is not going according to the general’s plan.

The problem with this week for Wesley Clark, presidential candidate, is that it is not last week and it is not next week.

Last week, when Dean was still a colossus and most of the Democratic field was in Iowa, Clark was busy in New Hampshire preparing himself for the role of the anti-Dean. That was a heady time of surging poll numbers as the brainy warrior in the Andy Williams sweaters moved into a clear second place.

Next week — at least as Clark has planned it — the general will prove to the country that, as a southerner and a military man, he has a special appeal among voters below the gnat line, where so many elections are decided.

But this week, nothing has gone quite right for the novice candidate. Instead of head-to-head combat with Dean, as intended, Clark is in a four- or five-way race to capture the New Hampshire primary. Another decorated veteran — Kerry — has bounced to the top in the polls. And another southerner, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) — the Iowa runner-up — has popped up to complicate Clark’s claims to a cultural edge.

All true. That’s the risk he took by skipping Iowa. While the best option available, it meant that anyone other than Dean winning was going to get a huge surge.

But that’s very Inside Baseball. The main reason Clark’s momentum is slowing is that he’s going from an unknown quantity who could be whatever Democrats wanting an anti-Dean imagined, to an increasingly known commodity now that he’s out on the campaign trail revealing himself.

As Clark’s prominence has risen, he has found himself called on to explain and re-explain his position on the war in Iraq — a stance that was highly nuanced before the conflict, only to harden into staunch opposition since throwing his hat into the ring.

In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in September 2002 — as members of Congress were considering a resolution authorizing the war — Clark repeatedly counseled against using force too quickly, even as he approved of threatening a war as a tool to force action from the United Nations and change from Saddam Hussein.

But Clark also gave credence to statements he now dismisses: that Iraq posed a danger because of likely ties to terrorists and stockpiles of dangerous weapons.

“There’s no question that Saddam Hussein is a threat,” Clark told the panel, calling the Iraqi leader “malevolent and violent” and “to some large degree unpredictable.” The general said Hussein “does retain his chemical and biological capabilities to some extent and he is, as far as we know, actively pursuing nuclear capabilities.”

Clark also said that, although no ties had been proven between Hussein and the al Qaeda terrorist network, “it has to be going on. It has to be.”

***

Another issue dogging Clark: his position on abortion.

Earlier this month, during an editorial board meeting at the Manchester Union Leader, Clark suggesting to Publisher Joseph W. McQuaid that he would set no limits on abortion. “I don’t think you should get the law involved in abortion,” Clark said.

“At all?” McQuaid countered, pressing the point right up to the moment of birth.

“Nope,” Clark answered.

Running for the presidency is orders of magnitude more difficult than running for any other office in the land and all Clark’s opponents have at least had the experience of running for other offices first. Clark compounded this by jumping into the game relatively late, hoping to swoop in as the party’s savior.

Clark still has a chance. Indeed, I’d say he’s got a better chance than Howard Dean at this point. It certainly looks like John Kerry is going to knock Dean off pretty quickly and consolidate the liberal faction of the party around him. Clark is going to have to emerge as the moderate alternative rather quickly, by convincing people that he’s a better choice than John Edwards soon enough to win a sizable share of the Southern delegates. My guess is that the reverse is more likely to happen–Edwards building on his Iowa momentum with a respectable showing in New Hampshire and then winning South Carolina outright.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. McGehee says:

    FWIW, the Fox News tracking poll is showing Edwards in an anemic fourth place. The difference between his support and Clark’s is within the MOE, but still — define “respectable.”

  2. James Joyner says:

    Kerry and Dean would be expected to finish 1-2 given the geography. I think Edwards could survive even a close 4th. Lieberman would be done if he finished 5th–I think he’s done anyway. Kucinich and Sharpton are novelty candidates. Sharpton isn’t Jesse Jackson. Edwards should win SC. If Clark has come in 3rd or lower in the first three events, it’ll be hard to recover.