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What the general owes the doctor


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Why Wes Clark is on the rise

If you want to understand why General Wesley Clark is causing heartburn in the Dean camp, it's worth studying how much the guy who is running as the un-Dean actually resembles him.

Both men make the most of their hard-earned titles: the doctor and the general are conspicuously not Senators; they barely admit to being politicians at all. Their innocence of national elective experience is a virtue.

Their tough temperaments and raw styles are suited to a Democratic base alienated by dignified leaders in Washington who got rolled by the Bush revolution. Neither has any embarrassing votes to explain for a war, a tax cut, a budget.

Both have sucked in unprecedented amounts of cash, Dean in little squirts from his many online allies, Clark from the deep gushing pockets of party patrons who will pay any price to stop Dean before it's too late. Dean raised $15 million in the last quarter, Clark $10 million, and no other Democrat was close.

In fact the spin from the Clark camp is not so much that Clark is the anti-Dean as that he is Dean 2.0smarter, faster, fewer bugs. He is protected from attacks on patriotism in ways Dean is not, even as Clark attacks President Bush for not preventing the 9/11 attacks and brags that had he been President, he would have caught Osama by now.

As a centrist from Arkansas who has probably voted for as many Republicans as Democrats, Clark may be one of the few true swing voters left. Having sharpened his stump speech and softened his style, Clark is taking advantage of all the empty space up on the New Hampshire stage to deliver his message to the unsure and the undecided--18%, according to a poll taken for the Concord Monitor. If all this Dean talk is making you nervous, he says, give me a chance to give you a choice.

Clark came ripping into the race in September claiming to answer the call of desperate Democrats particularly the pragmatists who fear Bush more than they admire Dean and don't want to waste a vote just to blow off steam. "I'm not running to bash George Bush," Clark says. "I'm running to replace him."

With no campaign experience or political record to run on, Clark had to introduce himself to Democratic voters, who, he acknowledges, are less accustomed than Republicans to seeing a general in their race; he still needs to prove that he is the Democrats' Eisenhower, not their Al Haig.

At the moment, Clark's apparent passing of John Kerry in New Hampshire and his success hauling Dean down into a statistical dead heat nationally in some polls give the race a new and livelier feel, especially since Clark's numbers are climbing as others are falling at just the moment when momentum matters.

The size of Clark's crowds has grown sharply in recent weeks to rival Dean's. That is bad news for the doctor, who needs the pack of candidates below him to stay muddled so no clear alternative rises to win over the two-thirds of Democrats who don't currently plan to vote for him.

Dean staff members are turning up at Clark events to hand out flyers noting that Clark didn't register as a Democrat until last October and questioning his wobbly stance on the Iraq war.

But Clark is ready for that, even relishing it. Asked by a woman at a Dartmouth rally whether he was really a Republican in sheep's clothing, he zinged back, "I never really thought of Democrats as sheep."

With each new speech and policy proposal, it is easier to spot the hulking shadow of Clark's underwriter and greatest political influence, a certain ex-President who is not eager to see his legacy erased and is never off the phone for long. Bill Clinton may not be running Clark's campaign, but a bunch of his ex-aides are, right down to Clark's bio film, produced by Clinton videographer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason.

Clark has avoided any talk about the need to "reinvent the Democratic Party," perhaps because he has not forgotten that the generally centrist path of Clinton-Gorism won the popular vote in the past three elections. So while John Kerry twists into a patrician populist, attacking Washington's "creed of greed," and Dean continues to strum the base, Clark unveils a middle-class tax cut in his latest attempt to uphold the rationale and rhetoric of mainstream Clintonism.

With Enron whistle-blower Sherron Watkins at his side, Clark proposed closing corporate-tax loopholes and raising rates for millionaires to pay for a tax cut for all families earning less than $100,000 a year.

Until now, all Dean has promised is to repeal the entire Bush tax cut, which has allowed other candidates to charge him with insensitivity to stressed-out middle-class families. "It's a very bad idea to take the tax breaks away from middle-income and working families," Clark told reporters. "We need to be helping these families, not increasing the tax burden on them."

But apart from policy differences, Clark's real rationale is that he alone has the weapon to beat Bush, reflecting the hunch that the most appealing health-care or jobs plan in the world can't make up for a perceived lack of experience on the national-security issues that have become matters of life and death since the last time voters went to pick a President.

"This party can't only be about education and jobs and compassion," he told TIME. "It's got to be that, but it's also got to be the party that best guides America's actions in the world and protects our people." Given his lack of legislative experience, that's the natural place for Clark to draw the battle lines.

Reported by Perry Bacon Jr./with Clark; Douglas Waller/ with Kerry; and Michael Duffy/Washington

Copyright © 2004 Time Inc.

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