PETERBOROUGH, N.H.—The metaphorical moment of my first 24 hours on the Clark trail took place late Tuesday, when a college student handed her résumé to a Clark aide and asked for a job. The objective emblazoned across the top of the page stated that she wanted a position with the Kerry campaign, except the word “Kerry” was scratched out and “Clark” was hand-written below it in ink. If that’s not proof of Clark’s newfound No. 2 status in New Hampshire, Howard Dean’s campaign produced still more evidence when it authorized volunteers to distribute anti-Clark flyers at a Clark town-hall meeting Wednesday here in Peterborough.
On one side, the flyer reads “WESLEY CLARK: PRO-WAR,” followed by a list of the general’s much-discussed statements in support of the congressional Iraq war resolution. It’s the stuff that gave Clark grief when he entered the race in the fall: He advised Katrina Swett, campaigning at the time *, to vote for the resolution, and he told reporters this past September that “on balance, I probably would have voted for it.” On the other side, the flyer reads “WESLEY CLARK: REAL DEMOCRAT?” followed by Clark’s much-discussed statements in praise of President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and the Bush Cabinet, plus evidence of his pro-Republican voting record in presidential elections (until 1992).
Clark strategist Chris Lehane paints this as hypocrisy on Dean’s part. After calling on Terry McAuliffe to put a stop to intra-party bickering, the former Vermont governor aims his guns at his fellow Democrats when the tactic serves his interests. Fair enough, but who cares? More important is Clark campaign’s sense of pride that it has arrived as a serious Dean rival. No campaign has ever been happier to have a target on its back.
Just as a press release at the Oct. 9 Phoenix debate showed that the Dean campaign considered Dick Gephardt its main obstacle of the moment, these flyers, however mild, demonstrate that Clark has become a big enough irritant to merit a swat of his own. “The Howard Dean campaign is starting to get a little nervous,” Mo Elleithee, the campaign’s New Hampshire communications director, crows at a conference call slapped together to gleefully respond to Dean’s “negative attack flyers.” “They’re hearing our footsteps.”
The Clark campaign insists that it was never engaged in any negative campaigning, and it’s true that Clark has refrained from explicitly attacking Dean or any of his opponents at the three events I’ve attended so far. But there’s no disputing that a healthy anti-Dean undercurrent runs through Clark’s events. “You want to find the candidate you like, and you want to find the candidate who can win,” says the man who introduces Clark in Peterborough. President Bush will run for re-election on national security and tax cuts, and Wesley Clark, he says, unlike Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean, can win on both.
Clark himself is even vaguer, but it’s clear to whom he is referring when he opens each stump speech with a declaration that the party must rise above its anger in this election. “I’m not running to bash Bush,” he says. “I’m running to replace him.” The rest of the speech focuses on his patriotism, his faith, and his policies, but I wonder if this is another quiet shot at Dean. During Vietnam, “Every man in America understood that he had a military obligation,” so it’s no big deal that Clark served his country, Clark insists. (Did Dean understand his obligation?) And then, at a quick press conference after the town hall, a reporter asks Clark to respond directly to the flyers. Sounding more than ever like the man who just attacked him, Clark replies, “I guess that’s what professional politicians do.”
Correction, Jan. 9, 2004: In the original version of this article Chris Suellentrop referred to Katrina Swett as “Representative,” when in fact she was merely campaigning for Congress at the time. Return to the corrected sentence.