OKLAHOMA CITY—”Oh baby we got jobs tomorrow!” says one jubilant Wesley Clark campaign staffer to another. It’s 10 minutes before 8 p.m., and the crowd gathered at the convention center here has erupted over CNN’s report that Clark has unexpectedly surged into second place in South Carolina from a distant fourth. The information turns out to be flat wrong, and the room calms down. But the staffer’s conclusion was right. She still has a job, and just a few hours ago it looked like she wouldn’t.
For much of the day Tuesday, it appeared that Clark was about to withdraw from the presidential campaign. The early exit polls in Oklahoma showed Clark in third place (though taking into account the presumed margin of error, it was a dead heat). His son, Wes Clark Jr., was speaking about the campaign in the past tense. Only 20 minutes or so before the Clark staffer’s celebratory exclamation, Clark sounded like he was conceding that the Oklahoma primary, rather than marking his first-ever victory in a political campaign, could mark the end of his presidential run. “This could be over, [or] it could be a long way from over,” he said.
But as the returns flowed in and Clark threatened to overtake John Edwards as the first-place candidate on the Oklahoma results displayed on CNN’s crawl, the crowd began sending up a huge cheer every time CNN rotated in the Sooner State numbers. (They watched CNN on a huge TV screen in the smallish room for Clark’s primary night party.) “80 votes! 80 votes! Yeah!” calls out a man watching the election returns with the attentiveness of a football fan during the Super Bowl. With 74 percent of the precincts reporting, Clark goes up by seven votes. “We’re ahead! We’re ahead! We’re ahead!” a supporter screams. It’s the political version of the Giants winning the pennant.
Minutes later, Clark is down again, this time by 63 votes. Then it’s 62 votes. With 80 percent of the precincts reporting, he goes in front of Edwards by 11 votes. Then Edwards takes over by 105 votes, then 62 votes again. But the late precincts break heavily for Clark. With 87 percent of the precincts reporting, Clark is up by 959 votes. “He’s up by a thousand! Clark’s up by a thousand!” With 99 percent of the precincts counted, and up by nearly 1,300 votes, Clark declares victory, even if CNN hasn’t. And he heads to Tennessee to campaign before the Feb. 10 primary there (held on the same day as Virginia’s), instead of going home to Little Rock, as some thought he might.
A win’s a win, and some Clark partisans argue that Clark’s Feb. 3 showing trumps Edwards’ decisive South Carolina victory because Clark placed second in three states, while Edwards finished in second place in only two. I don’t buy that. Neither candidate had a particularly strong day. Edwards finished in fourth place in three states, and Clark finished fourth twice, and in Delaware he finished fifth. (For futility, neither compares to Joe Lieberman’s failure to land even 100 votes in North Dakota.) It’s hard to see how either man argues that he deserves to go mano a mano with John Kerry.
At some point, either Clark or Edwards will have to prove that he can win the support of Democratic voters in states in which the Democratic nominee will actually have to campaign in the general election. Clark may be the choice of Oklahoma Democrats, but Oklahoma hasn’t cast its electoral votes for a Democratic presidential candidate since LBJ’s 1964 landslide. South Carolina has been a solid GOP bet for decades—it was one of the six * states to go for Goldwater in ‘64—though it did side with Jimmy Carter in 1976. Granted, Edwards demonstrated the ability to garner significant support in Iowa, but Iowa hasn’t gone Republican since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 rout of Walter Mondale.
In the general-election swing states of New Hampshire, Arizona, Missouri, and New Mexico, the combined number of Clark and Edwards voters fell far short of the number of Kerry voters—by double-digit percentages in each state except Arizona, where Kerry still garnered 9 percent more voters than Clark and Edwards put together.
As Howard Dean might tell the two men, we can do better than this. If not, their campaign staffers won’t have jobs for much longer.
Correction, Feb. 5, 2004: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Barry Goldwater carried five states in the 1964 presidential election. He carried six. (Return to the corrected sentence.)