Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Clark: What will it mean?

The question many Dean supporters are asking themselves now is what will Wesley Clark's candidacy mean for Dean? This is a very difficult question to answer, but I'll take a stab at it. The short answer is either not much, or a hell of lot, either way, the likelyhood of Dean sharing a ticket with Clark has dropped to nearly nill.

The first and primary reason that Clark and Dean are unlikely to end up on a ticket together is that Dean is the front runner in the races that matter the most. The only way Clark is going to make progress in the long term is by attacking Dean. Not condusive to kissing and making up for the General Election.

It is likely that Clark will lay back for awhile trying to build his war chest and integrate his draft volunteers with his staff. He needs credibility and traction. He has to pull out of fifth place and start gathering forward momentum. He may focus his attention on the back of the second tier pack in IA and NH, Lieberman and Edwards. He may rely on Dean to dispose of or weaken Gephardt and Kerry. He will hope to winnow the field and pull out a 3rd or even 2nd place showing in those initial races, good enough to give his campaign momentum and fundraising credibility. I suspect Clark will steer clear of direct engagement with Dean until he's helped Dean cull the herd.

This early momentum and buzz could open the the field for Clark victories in SC and OK. His ultimate aim will likely be to try to make the race essentially Dean vs. Clark in AZ, NM, MO, DE and DC and thereafter.

Many of the candidates have attributes which Clark sees as his advantages over Dean. None of them can put the package together like Clark thinks he can. Edwards, Graham, and Gephardt are all southerners. Lieberman is ideologically to the right of Dean. Kerry has war hero status. To eliminate these disparate candidates, and fold their attributes into a single candidate will be the basis of the anti-Dean stretegy of the Clark campaign. Once those cadidates are cleared from the race, then the campaign to portray Dean as incapable of defeating Bush will begin, with Clark portrayed as the Democratic party's best hope.

The challenge for Clark will be to come up with reasons other than his biography to choose him. Right down the line Clark's positions, to date, are quite similar to Dean's. Mark Fabiani and, most likely, his business partner Chris Lehane, will be doing Clark's communications. I can envision the General caging these attack dogs until just the right moment, and then losing the dogs of war. With men like these at the helm, the reasons to prefer Clark will likely come in the form of attacks. Lehane was formerly with Kerry's campaign and is rumoured to have left because of the candidate's refusal to go more negative on Dean.

Now the good news. Clark has a lot of deficits to overcome and his campaigning style may be much more traditional than Dean's. Clark needs to raise funds and attract a great deal of volunteer enthusiasm or Democratic establishment support. Clinton's "endorsement that wasn't an endorsement" will help with the later, but it remains to be seen if Clark will be able to attract either the large donors of the DLC crowd or build a large base of small donors like Dean. Much of the activist energy right now is with Dean. Only time will tell whether Clark can siphon off any of that energy or whether he will run a more traditional top-down campaign. If the latter, he will need to pick up much of the Democratic establishment currently encamped with Kerry, Lieberman, Gephardt, and Edwards. He needs money and people and voters, and whether he will start to roll them up or languish remains to be seen.

What makes predictions especially difficult is Clark's lack of an electoral track record. We simply don't know how, or if, Clark will connect with voters. Nor do we know how he will deal with debates, attacks, and the inevitable gaffes.

Only time will tell. Clark is a leap into the dark electorally. An act of political faith. Or desperation. A political tabla rasa on which people can write their aspirations for an end to GOP corruption and misgovernance.

Here are some links to learn more about the enigmatic General and his people:

The Clark Sphere
United 4 Clark
Digital Clark
Clark's Company Wavecrest
Meet the Press Post War Interview


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