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In early days of his campaign, Clark sees new kind of combat

Latecomer draws quick cash, scrutiny

In the week and a day since he entered the presidential race, retired Army General Wesley K. Clark has found himself in the center of the whirlwind. Heading into a debate today that will be an early test of his candidacy, he's got an instant lead in two national polls, instant attention from the media, and instant scrutiny from his rivals.

Today's Democratic forum in New York will focus on economics, but Clark's nine opponents may be poised to fixate on Clark's perceived weaknesses: his evolving position on the war in Iraq and his credentials as a Democrat, after telling reporters last week that he voted for President Reagan.

And yesterday, as Clark called for significant cuts in President Bush's tax cuts to fund a $100 billion plan that would create jobs and boost homeland security, his campaign had to address a public snipe from retired Army General H. Hugh Shelton, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Clark headed NATO forces in Kosovo. Shelton told a group in California this month that he wouldn't support Clark for president because of concerns about his "integrity and character."

It is the peril, Clark has found, of being the candidate of the moment. A high profile has its good points, however: It gives the campaign credibility and opens fund-raising doors, helping Clark raise $750,000 in his first weekend in the race.

But it also means that the growing pains of Clark's campaign have been exposed for the world to see. And it means that everyone who was anyone gets asked about Clark; some don't answer kindly.

"I will tell you the reason he came out of Europe early had to do with integrity and character issues, things that are very near and dear to my heart," Shelton told a group at Foothill College in Los Altos, Calif., two weeks ago, according to local news reports. "I'm not going to say whether I'm a Republican or a Democrat. I'll just say Wes won't get my vote."

An aide to Shelton yesterday said he was traveling and would not clarify the comment. The two generals often were at odds over strategy for the war in Kosovo.

The Clark campaign's response was brief: "General Shelton has the right to express his opinions," spokeswoman Mary Jacoby said.

But the Shelton flap is only one of the high-profile volleys that Clark has faced since he launched his late-entry candidacy last week. Conservatives have focused on Clark's connection to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who denied yesterday that she was setting up Clark to run as her vice president and called such rumors "an absurd feat of imagination."

And the press has focused on Clark's morphing position on the congressional resolution to authorize war in Iraq. After saying last week that he probably would have supported the resolution with certain caveats, Clark later said he never would have voted to support the war.

That wasn't a "rookie mistake," said Marc Landy, a political science professor at Boston College. If Clark was contemplating a run for months, Landy said, he should have had a ready answer.

Likewise, Landy said, Clark should have considered that stalwart Democrats might react badly to the fact that he has voted for Republicans and presented a story of personal conversion to explain his changing politics. Some of Clark's rivals have already focused on the issue: Yesterday, Senator John F. Kerry told reporters that "while he was voting for Richard Nixon and for Ronald Reagan, I was fighting against their policies."

Polls by Newsweek and CNN/USA Today/Gallup over the weekend put Clark ahead of his Democratic rivals. Still, political analysts and partisans question the depth of that support and say it reflects a general dissatisfaction with the Democratic field. "It seems to be commentary on the field of nine who have been campaigning for a year," said a Republican National Committee spokesman, Jim Dyke. "This guy's been in the race for three days, and he's got three different positions on Iraq, and he's the leader."

Even Clark's aides are loath to give the polls too much credit. "We know that polls are ephemeral," Jacoby said. "We have to earn the trust and respect of the American people."

Glen Johnson and Michael Kranish of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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