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Late entry, strong start, long haul

Clark searching for momentum

DOVER, N.H. -- With less than three months until the primary elections that will seal his presidential fate, the question confounding retired Army General Wesley K. Clark's supporters is: When is that juggernaut going to happen?

For a late-entry candidate, Clark has considerable advantages. He has high name recognition, is raising funds at a rapid clip, and has assembled a well-regarded staff of Washington veterans. But the difference between reality and expectation can be summed up in a stack of editorial cartoons piled on a desk in Clark's Dover office. They ran the week Clark entered the race, and more than one shows a giant military tank running down the rest of the Democratic field.

That inevitability has not materialized. Clark trails far behind front-runner Howard Dean in New Hampshire. He dropped out of the Iowa caucuses, due to organizational challenges. And while aides say they expect Clark to raise $6 million in the final quarter of the year, Dean's supporters just pledged him $5 million in two days.

Perhaps as telling is the way other campaigns have begun to treat Clark. In his first debates, rivals pounced on his perceived weaknesses. At a forum in Boston last week, no one challenged him at all.

Events of the past week present an opportunity for Clark. As Dean consolidates support, his opponents within the party leadership might be moved to settle on an alternative they deem more electable. And as Senator John F. Kerry's campaign struggles to find a footing, Clark, with his southern roots and foreign policy background, could be in a position to fill that role.

But among some of Clark's longtime fans, who pined for him to enter the race, and spoke of him, in precampaign days, as an invincible force, there is palpable concern. With deadlines looming, they fear that Clark's campaign, which centers on his military background as chief selling point and operating metaphor, won't catch fire soon enough to make a difference.

"Resume and credentials aren't necessarily what gets people elected," said Andy Ostroy, 44, a New Yorker in the marketing business, who thinks Clark represents the Democrats' best chance in a face-off with President Bush. "He's got to go and touch people," Ostroy said. "He's not making that connection with the voter at large."

Clark is working hard at campaigning, putting considerable strain on his vocal cords, and is quick with an answer when voters ask for his strategy.

"I'm in New Hampshire," he told the Queens County Democratic Organization in New York last week. "I'm working hard there, about 50 percent of my time. We're going to do well in New Hampshire. And then we'll go to South Carolina, Oklahoma, Arizona. We've got strength in the South, we've got strength in the West. We're going to win."

This is the Clark campaign's best-case scenario. Aides hope to finish third or a close fourth in New Hampshire, where they will start running their first television ads within weeks. But they see their make-or-break day a week later, on Feb. 3, when seven states will hold primaries. Some of Clark's staffers are dispersing to the states he mentioned, hoping to establish him as an alternative to Dean, whose Yankee demeanor could play poorly in the South and West.

In the Southern states Clark visited last week, some voters said they believe the race could come down to the Arkansas-bred Clark versus the New York-reared Dean.

But some political analysts say the Feb. 3 strategy is a gamble, because the primary process relies on momentum: Strong finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire could propel Dean toward success down the line.

Clark finished first in a South Carolina poll conducted recently by the New Hampshire-based American Research Group. But those numbers reflect Clark's national stature, said Dick Bennett, the company's president.

"The national numbers are absolutely meaningless," Bennett said. "What he's got to do is consolidate those people. He's got to make sure that they stick with him. A lot of times, campaigns fail at doing that."

As he tries to get his message to voters, Clark faces several challenges, supporters say. His background in the Army -- which Clark often refers to on the stump as a model organization -- could alienate some voters, said Lonnie Plott, a Clark supporter who is a leader of the Georgia AFL-CIO.

"People have reservations with career military people. They really do," Plott says. "It's the military environment. Most of them are very good at being really controlling types of people."

The rigors of a three-decade Army career might color Clark's public persona, as well. He's no firebrand on the stump. His debate performances have been cautious. By nature, he is inclined to long answers instead of digestible soundbites. Aides have dubbed his town hall meetings "Conversations with Clark," but they can be one-sided; at a Georgia event last week, Clark talked for so long that there was time for only two questions from the audience.

And some Clark supporters say they ache to see more personality and humor in Clark's earnest public appearances.

"I just think he's so cerebral that it's hard for him," said Ostroy, the Manhattan supporter. "Sometimes people like that, they never turn it off. They're always being that bright guy, and they never just get down and dirty and yuk it up. . . . You just want to put your arm around him and say, `Wesley! Lighten up, dude!' "

Clark's campaign has been trying, of late, and Clark got a healthy buzz for a video he aired at last week's CNN/Rock the Vote debate, when he said, in perfect deadpan, "I don't care what the other candidates say, I don't think OutKast is really breaking up. Andre 3000 and Big Boi just cut solo records, that's all."

TV can shape an image for the masses, and Clark's aides are unrolling Internet initiatives they hope will spur grass-roots support. But some believe Clark is at his best when he campaigns one-on-one. Plott said his own reservations disappeared after a half-hour conversation with Clark at last year's Georgia Democratic state convention.

"If people could meet the general and talk to him, they would be converted," Plott said.

So far, the breakneck pace of campaigning has prevented Clark from too much personal interaction; on a single day last week, he touched ground in New York, South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia. His lack of direct voter contact in New Hampshire has been striking, said Bennett, the pollster: "They're running it like an incumbent presidential campaign."

But when Clark has had a chance to talk to people directly, he can make a strong impression. A few weeks ago, Clark visited a day care center in Salem, N.H., and for an hour morphed into a kindergarten teacher. He chatted amiably with a group of 5-year-olds, critiqued their crayon artwork, grinned with them in a group picture. After he left, two of the teachers marveled at the visit.

When presidential contender Bill Bradley visited in 2000, they said, he read the children a story and left them bored. Clark was so engaged, they said, that they could tell he cared about early education.

They declared themselves sold. Chalk up two supporters for the Clark campaign. But time was already running out.

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