NORTH CONWAY, N.H. - It was a classic day on a New Hampshire holiday. The kids were busy. My wife was shopping. So on a wintry afternoon I traveled a full quarter-mile to have a look at the shiniest new snow boots I had seen in a long time.
They belonged to retired Gen. Wesley L. Clark, who, because he is from Arkansas and is a newcomer to presidential politics, can be forgiven the new boots, which, by the way, were by far the nicest in the room. The other boots belonged to the reporters, columnists, editors, and assorted friends of the Conway Daily Sun, plus, of course, the editor s cousin. He had a few questions and besides, this is an informal state. Everyone s welcome.
But the biggest question I had after an hour with the general and the journalists was about my own preconceptions. I had believed that Howard Dean was the most angry fellow in the Democratic race. I had believed that the former governor of Vermont was the most intemperate guy in the contest. I had believed that the nomination battle consisted of one guy out on a limb with the rest of the contenders hugging the trunk of respectable moderation. By dusk, I saw that I was, as they say around here, wicked wrong.
There s a peculiar tropism to presidential nomination fights. The candidates start out somewhere toward the middle, appealing to as many people as they can, and then they discover that, in caucuses and primaries, it s the extremes and not the center that matter. They veer to their respective suns, Republicans to the right and Democrats to the left.
In this race, however, General Clark isn t behaving like a plant. He resembles a heat-seeking missile.
Which may explain why, as the evening grew darker, the onetime soldier leisurely came close to accusing the commander in chief of treason, though he did so with a smile, in a whispery voice and with soothing sips of hot chocolate from a Styrofoam cup that he was handed by an aide. Try a few sips of this:
“I didn t want to believe the administration would do what it did, that it would deliberately mislead the American people and bring us into war with Iraq.”
“The President didn t do everything he could have done to prevent 9/11.” Plus this: The real villains in the Iraq drama were Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the President s father, who stood by as Saddam Hussein practiced genocide.
General Clark is no frontrunner, but his strategy doesn t require him to be one, until of course the very end. Right now he is poised to be the remainder man, the guy who is left standing when the bigger figures fall. Prime targets: Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who is done if he doesn t finish first in Iowa later this month; Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who is poised to come in second everywhere, a fatal position for someone who used to be the front-runner, and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who wins friends everywhere but may win votes nowhere.
Then there s the money. The general has a lot of it, raising more than $10 million in the last quarter and ready to reap nearly $4 million in federal matching funds, the most of any contender. In short, that s more than enough to underwrite a continuous airing of an advertisement that proclaims him “a new American leader” and features, for the first time in the 2004 campaign, the image of Bill Clinton. It doesn t hurt that the image features Mr. Clinton presenting General Clark, who served as the NATO commander during the Kosovo war, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“It s a new experience for me, it s a new experience for the voters of New Hampshire,” General Clark says of his campaign here. “Most of the people say: I ve never met a general before. I m a different kind of animal.”
True enough. The subtheme here is that he s the Democratic Dwight D. Eisenhower, a military figure who swept the New Hampshire primary. “My values are patriotism, faith, family,” he says, a mantra evocative of Ike but with a thoroughly modern ending: “and inclusiveness.” However, Eisenhower ran in 1952, which was ages ago, and he didn t actually appear here; his campaign was run by surrogates, especially Gov. Sherman Adams.
But the significance of General Clark s run - and look for him to come on strong in the next few weeks, and not only because he has road signs everywhere - is that even if the Democrats turn away from Mr. Dean, they may turn to someone with the same views as Mr. Dean. At least when there was an ABM (Anyone But McGovern) movement, there was only one McGovern in the race.
General Clark is nobody s fool. He graduated first in his class at West Point, was a Rhodes Scholar, and was an accomplished inside politician long before he was embraced (and then repulsed from) the Clinton circle. He speaks with vigor and with certainty, and the danger is that he will strike some voters as Ross Perot in a uniform. But the other afternoon he attracted more than 100 people to an afternoon town meeting at the Notchland Inn in Hart s Location.
I ve driven by the place, an 1860s hostelry in the White Mountains National Forest, maybe a hundred times and I can t remember ever seeing more than a handful of cars in the parking lot. That day there wasn t a space to be had, and cars lined the long driveway nearly all the way to Route 302.
Later that day the general s voice was raspy - this has been a continual problem for Clark the candidate - and at times it was difficult for him to be heard. “I bet you had to bark when you were a general,” Adam Hirshan, the cerebral editor of the Conway Daily Sun, said to General Clark.
“Yes,” replied the general, “but not very often.”
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org