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He skipped Iowa, but his time will come

Published January 18, 2004

Suddenly, the battle for Iowa is a four-way race among Howard Dean, Richard Gephardt, John Kerry and John Edwards, according to the latest polls. Iowans will make their choices in Monday's presidential caucuses, but we don't have to wait for the votes to be counted to know the outcome. The real winner - at least in the short run - is Wesley Clark, the retired Army general who (along with Joe Lieberman) ignored Iowa and focused his attention on New Hampshire.

While Dean was being bloodied by his opponents in Iowa, Clark has had a mostly free ride in the Granite State, which holds the nation's first presidential primary a week after the candidates fold their tents in Iowa. The polls show Clark running a strong second to Dean in New Hampshire, and if Dean's campaign hits a snow bank in Iowa, Clark will be even better positioned to offer himself as the real "outsider" in a race dominated by Washington incumbents. Of course, an upset victory by Kerry or Edwards, whose political obituaries were being written two weeks ago, could throw the race wide open in New Hampshire and beyond. If that happens, Clark would not be the only alternative to Dean.

Whatever happens in Iowa, Clark is about to find himself in the center of the political storm headed for New Hampshire, a state that is partial to underdogs. While most of the attention has been focused on Iowa, the military man from Arkansas has largely escaped the kind of scrutiny and attacks that have taken a toll on Dean's front-runner candidacy. That is about to change.

Four months into his presidential candidacy, Clark is a largely untested but much-improved candidate, still a work in progress. His considerable strengths and weaknesses are becoming clearer by the day. His answers to some questions make him sound as if he had been up all night cramming on position papers. He is the least defined of the Democratic candidates, and in some ways the most puzzling. He has acknowledged that he voted for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and registered as a Democrat only after announcing his intention to run for president. He has become President Bush's harshest critic on the Iraq war, but a few years ago he was praising the president's "great team" before Republican audiences. Clark's own campaign team is made up of veterans of Bill Clinton's march from Arkansas to Washington. (You have to wonder if the Clintonites have considered the possibility that Clark could go all the way to the White House, and what that would mean for Hillary's plan to run for president in 2008.)

Clark is counting on his biography - first in his West Point class, Rhodes scholar, Vietnam Purple Heart and NATO supreme allied commander - to separate him from the other Democrats as the candidate with the strongest national security credentials in the post-9/11 world. But the other Democrats are not about to concede that issue to Clark, who is still trying to explain his shifting and conflicting positions on whether he would have supported the congressional resolution authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq. In a 24-hour period after announcing his presidential bid, Clark first said he "probably" would have voted for the resolution and later declared he would have voted against it. This is the one question, above all others, the retired general should have been prepared for.

"I answered the question as best I could, and I bobbled the question," he told the Associated Press in a recent interview. "Even Rhodes scholars make mistakes."

On domestic issues, Clark sometimes comes across as a piece of wet clay being molded by Democratic interest groups. For example, he recently told the Concord (N.H.) Monitor that he opposed any restrictions on abortion right up until the last day of a pregnancy - the most radical position any Democratic presidential contender has ever taken on abortion. He supports civil unions and gay marriage and gun control. He says he would not apply any litmus test to judicial nominees but adds that he would appoint only judges who support abortion rights. And in defending his work as a registered lobbyist after retiring from the military, Clark told a town meeting in New Hampshire: "We were trying to make America safe. That's what lobbyists mostly do."

Unless Clark goes into a ditch in New Hampshire, voters will have to size up the man and the judgment and temperament he would bring to the Oval Office in a relatively short time. Except in Iowa and New Hampshire, four-fifths of registered Democratic voters say they do not yet know enough about the presidential candidates to make an informed choice, according to the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey.

Wesley Clark is no Colin Powell, the retired Army chief of staff who had Republican moderates and political junkies swooning a few years ago before he ruled out a presidential bid, but he is a candidate to be taken seriously.

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