CONCORD, N.H.–It was one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen on the campaign trail. A man at a Wes Clark town-hall meeting Thursday night stood up and explained how he had been literally struck speechless upon meeting Clark a few months earlier. He said he had since realized that his tongue-tiedness had been a product of his awe at the fact that Clark is such “a humble, down-to-earth man. [He’s] what we need in this country.” The crowd applauded. The man continued, explaining that to make up for his earlier reticence he had made Clark a present, a framed picture of Clark with his family so he could better remember them while away campaigning.
He approached Clark to give him the picture. Something seemed off. Maybe he was a plant? Or maybe it was a hoax and he was just a canny heckler pulling Clark’s leg? One reporter said afterward she thought that maybe the man was going to attack Clark. It turned out to be none of the above–he was just a weirdly devoted Clark fan. There seem to be quite a few of those. Someone else got up and gave a little speech about what a honor it was to have such a man as Wes Clark walking among mere mortals at a New Hampshire high school on a freezing January night (and I mean freezing–it was below zero outside and the water froze inside our press van).
The Clark crowd, as is typical these days, was big–700 or so, standing room only in the school’s big atrium. Clark’s apparent New Hampshire momentum may just be a result of the Big Three other candidates’–Dean, Gephardt, and Kerry’s–focus on Iowa, meaning there is less competition for New Hampshirites’ attention. Or the notoriously fickle New Hampshire voters may just be giving Clark a fleeting second look. But whatever it is, something is happening here, and it’s going to be magnified by reporters eager to tout the hot new thing now that Howard Dean seems so last news cycle.
By any measure, what Clark has managed has been impressive. He hasn’t quite gone from 0 to 60 as candidate, but at least from 0 to 45. He seems able to answer every kind of question credibly, and occasionally gets off fairly passionate applause lines. He doesn’t have the magic of John McCain here in 2000, but some lifetime politicians will never achieve the level of proficiency Clark has attained. He is already, arguably, a better campaigner than John Kerry.
He says early in his stump speech that he is not here “to bash Bush, but to replace him.” But almost all the lines that get a crowd reaction are harsh anti-Bush zingers. That’s just what Democrats want to hear this year. Although Clark sells himself as a positive candidate, in an implicit contrast to Dean, he levels much more serious–and outrageous–charges against Bush. He says the Iraq war “wasn’t patriotic.” He alleges that the administration engaged in a deliberate bait-and-switch, telling the country it would hunt down bin Laden, while all the while planning on deposing Saddam instead. Last night he said Bush has the “record of a reckless and heartless leader.”
Portions of Clark’s stump presentation won’t stand up to serious scrutiny, if he ever gets the kind of unforgiving attention now focused on Dean. That will only happen if he continues to move upward. It’s hard to believe that a man who the day before yesterday had no discernible political convictions would seriously challenge for the Democratic nomination. But then again, who would have thought an obscure Vermont governor would be the favorite for that nomination?