Welcome to the front lines, General

BY KATIE BIBER

AND THE FIELD OF NINE becomes the Field of Ten.

Wesley Clark officially stumbled into the Democratic presidential contest two weeks ago, and moments later Newsweek offered up a gem Clark’s handlers would rather forget. Last January, Candidate Clark told two GOP leaders he would have been a Republican if Bush adviser Karl Rove had “returned my phone calls.” So much for an orchestrated entrance demonstrating a commitment to the base of the Democratic Party.

Despite the foibles, however, Democratic Party insiders (read: DLCers) are breathing a sigh of relief. Finally, they have someone to deliver a knockout punch to Howard Dean. Former Clinton and Gore staffers, until now on the sidelines nervously biting their nails, at last have a candidate they can support. Dean himself crossly noted that interest in Clark is “somewhat of a desperation” by Beltway insiders.

True to the form of his political mentor Bill Clinton, Wesley Clark has thus far demonstrated a remarkable ability to stick his finger in the wind. Upon first announcing his candidacy, he declared he would have supported the congressional resolution authorizing war in Iraq. Shortly thereafter he sheepishly “probably” would have supported the resolution “on balance.” Properly chastised by his campaign staff, he finally zeroed in on the correct answer among Democratic primary voters: “There was no reason to do this. We could have taken it to the U.N.” Clark also seems to be taking cues from Hillary Clinton’s “vast right-wing conspiracy” playbook, cryptically claiming that the Bush Administration tried to get him fired from his post as military analyst on CNN, and alleging that after the events of September 11, 2001, he “got a call” from “people around the White House” asking him to link the attacks to Saddam Hussein.

Apparently this bizarre formula has worked with Democratic voters in the short term. Much to the chagrin of his opponents, Clark has zoomed to the top of the heap, kicking aside John Kerry and relegating the shrill John Edwards to the third tier where he belongs. It is far too soon for Democratic insiders to get excited, however. It takes a bit more than a Rhodes Scholar pedigree and a brief CNN stint to win the nomination.

First, Clark will need to build an extensive grassroots organization to win the early primaries and caucuses. Winning the nomination at the Democratic convention requires winning actual delegate votes, and national poll numbers mean absolutely nothing when it comes to assembling support in key states. Grassroots support in Iowa and New Hampshire cannot be manufactured from the top down. Second, Clark will eventually have to give up his blank slate. The moment he is forced to commit his slippery views to paper, layers of support will begin to peel away like bad sunburn. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Clark cannot continue to sell himself as the candidate most likely to beat President Bush. This theme may quench the DLC thirst to win back the White House, but it sounds awfully hollow to Democratic activists who want their candidate to stand for something.

Assuming Clark could overcome these hurdles, he would face even bigger problems in the general election. For starters, candidates pretending to be Republicans will always lose out to candidates who actually are Republicans. Furthermore, Clark will eventually have to recast himself as standing for something significant. At the moment, his campaign appears only to stand against President Bush. This is a good way to win Democratic support but a terrible way to enter a contest against a sitting president.

It is unclear who will eventually be crowned the Democratic victor. But one thing is for certain: Wesley Clark is not the savior party insiders wish to make him.

Katie Biber’s column appears bi-weekly.

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