Posted on September 22, 2003 in Washington Watch

With the entry of General Wesley Clark into the race for the Democratic nomination to challenge President George W. Bush, the field appears to be complete. Until the Clark announcement, former Vermont Govern Howard Dean was the only Democrat who seemed to bring energy and excitement into the contest. In fact, Dean’s rapid rise to the top of the field of nine candidates had not only been a source of surprise to many in the media and the political establishment, it also caused concern and some irritation.

Dean’s insurgent, liberal and self-styled “plain-speaking” approach had won him the support of a core constituency who were looking for a candidate who would “stand up for his beliefs.” While Dean ran a campaign that sought to define Democratic principles, some Democratic leaders criticized his approach as polarizing and “too liberal.” They believed that to beat George Bush their party needed a moderate and a centrist.

Running against a field of nationally recognized Democrats, at first, Dean was given little chance of success. Given the line-up of the early states to hold primary elections, analysts had projected that Dean’s opponents would emerge victorious. In Iowa, for example, it was assumed that former Majority Leader Congressman Richard Gephardt from the neighboring state of Missouri would have the edge. New Hampshire was thought to be a easy win for Vietnam war hero Senator John Kerry, whose home state Massachusetts is next door. The next important contest in South Carolina was projected as a possible victory for southerners Senator John Edwards and Senator Robert Graham or a conservative Democrat like Senator Joseph Lieberman. But none of the projections have so far been borne out.

Dean exploded onto the scene with an unorthodox campaign that caught the imagination of the Democratic faithful. His fervent opposition to the Iraq war and to President Bush’s tax cuts–both anathema to the party’s moderates–won him early support. His creative use of the Internet has won him 400,000 volunteer supporters and helped his campaign raise record amounts of funds. Finally Dean has advertised early in targeted states hoping to increase his visibility and then embarked on an ambitious multi-state campaign tour that drew record crowds of supporters and significant national media attention.

All of these combined, propelled Dean to the top of the polls in several states. He is now leading by double did gets in Iowa and New Hampshire. He is tied with the others in conservative South Carolina and in the huge Democratic prize–California, Dean now holds a comfortable lead over the rest of the field.

Dean’s rise, the lukewarm performance of Kerry, Gephardt, Lieberman and Edwards, and the concern of the party’s moderate establishment that Dean’s anti-war liberal insurgency could spell defeat in November 2004, left an opening that many felt needed to be filled.

Enter General Clark.

As one pundit proclaimed, Clark is the “un-Dean.” While some projected that it might be too late to enter the contest and others worried that Clark, a political neophyte, would have trouble raising money and organizing an effective campaign staff, the early signs are that, at least on these counts, Clark will exceed expectations. His campaign staff reads like a “who’s who” from the Clinton 1992 and Gore 2000 campaigns–including some of the leading fundraisers from both efforts.

With almost one-quarter to one-third of Democrats still undecided about a candidate and with the support of many of the candidates still being quite soft–there is, in fact, a significant opening for a new candidate to enter.

What remains unclear is whether Clark will succeed as a candidate. One analyst described the situation as follows “right now Clark is a concept, the question is will the concept translate into a candidate”–meaning how well will he perform in the rough and tumble, give and take world of electoral politics. And this, only time and trial will tell.

If Clark succeeds, there is no doubt that other campaigns will be hurt. He can out- “war-hero” Kerry, and potentially be a more charismatic, national security oriented moderate than Lieberman. And, it is believed, his southern credentials will stand up against Edwards and Graham.

At this point, the two leaders who may be least effected by a successful Clark are Dean and Gephardt. The latter has strong rank and file union support and the endorsement of many of organized labor’s most important organizations. Dean, on the other hand, has organized a core group of faithful supporters who seem to be deeply committed to his effort.

If, on the other hand, Clark stumbles or displays traits that resonate negatively with the press and public, the very campaigns he was expected to hurt may be strengthened. The same, incidentally, may be true for Dean. Should he stumble at some point, liberal Dennis Kucinich may pick up steam.

In any case, the Democratic contest has now taken shape and promises to bring some excitement to the fall and winter political seasons.

Democrats are feeling emboldened. With President Bush facing new questions about his handling of the Iraq war and with the U.S. economy showing continuing signs of distress, the President’s approval ratings continue to fall. Recent polls now show that voters favor replacing Bush in November 2004. While this can change in the next year, the debate facing Democrats is clear. Do they want to choose a candidate self-described as an “electable moderate,” or do they want a candidate self-described as a “fighter for principles.”

Both approaches have a political case to make. While some polls may show that a moderate can coble together a majority vote, others suggest that the country is so evenly divided and partisan that what is required to win is a candidate who can excite and energize the faithful to vote.

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