Analysis: Is enthusiasm enough for Clark?

By MARIE HORRIGAN  |  Aug. 6, 2003 at 4:54 PM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 6 (UPI) -- Brothers-in-law John Hlinko and Josh Margulies have a veritable comedy routine worked out. On stage Monday night at Stetson's, a longtime Democratic hangout in Washington's gritty U Street neighborhood, the two pass the spotlight back and forth, exhorting the crowd to cheers and -- alternately -- groans.

"All we've got left are puns," Hlinko tells the crowd at one point.

Their show is all part of an effort to make America a better place.

"I'm tired of just looking at the people who decided to run and thinking who's the least bad," Hlinko told United Press International in a telephone interview Monday.

More simply still: "I want the president I was promised as a kid."

To Hlinko and Margulies, Wesley Clark -- retired four-star general, former NATO supreme commander and commander in chief of U.S. European Command during NATO's combat action in Kosovo -- is just this man. And so they've launched a full-blown campaign to draft Clark onto the Democratic Party ballot for the 2004 presidential election, using the Internet to create a community of Clark supporters that now numbers more than 6,000.

The effort started in May when 12 people, including Hlinko and Margulies, met in Washington to discuss how to get a better candidate on the ballot. By June, people were meeting in three cities. By July, 89.

On Monday, Hlinko and Margulies led the meeting in Washington -- one of 92 such meetings around the country -- to build support for their draft effort.

Both Hlinko and Margulies describe themselves as veterans of grass-roots campaigns. Hlinko, a Washington resident, was president of a political consulting firm while Margulies was a New York-based lawyer. Both have left their jobs to work full time on DraftWesleyClark.com, although Margulies pointed out, somewhat ruefully, "full-time would indicate, like, money, it would indicate 40 hours, 60 hours a week," while they work about 80 hours a week.

The money is starting to come in, they say, but they continue to fund their operations largely through credit and although they've written themselves salaries, they have yet to collect them.

"It's a campaign that on the one hand has such high traffic that the (Web site's) Google ranking is ... through the roof, but on the other hand is so ill-funded that we're scrapping by, that we've maxed out our credit cards," Margulies said.

Although Margulies and Hlinko may be just scraping by, their campaign is doing a lot better than that. DraftWesleyClark.com has culled almost $400,000 in pledged donations in four weeks, while the site rates second among Democratic candidate Web sites -- and they don't even have a candidate, Hlinko points out.

And they've gotten no shortage of media coverage. Monday's Meet Up in Washington pulled in about 50 attendees and more than five media outlets.

Online at Meetup.com -- the Internet-based service that organizes nationwide gatherings for groups with interests, as their literature says, as divergent as Dungeons and Dragons and Chihuahuas -- the pro-Clark community ranks third on the site's politics and activism category with about 6,300 members, far behind former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's more than 72,000 members but within striking distance of Sen. John Kerry's 8,200. The DraftWesleyClark.com event on Monday night had 1,125 confirmed attendees, Myles Weissleder, head of communications at Meetup.com, told UPI.

"This campaign has definitely had stages ... it was never a joke but it certainly didn't have the credibility that it has now, it didn't have the backing that it has now," Margulies said. "I've certainly never seen anything like this."

More importantly, Clark -- the intended draftee -- has called the effort "amazing."

Speaking June 15 on NBC's "Meet the Press," he said he would "like a chance to help this country. And I don't know if that means being president or doing something else. But I've spent my entire life in public service, except for the last three years. And it's very hard not to think in terms of the welfare of the country, and when you see the country in trouble, in challenge, yes you'd like to pitch in and help."

He added, "I'm going to have to consider (entering the presidential race)."

But so far, although he hasn't ruled out a run for the presidency, Clark has not yet made a decision, which he said will come by the end of the summer.

Clark, on vacation with his wife, had been unaware of Monday's Meet Ups and had no comment on them, an aide told UPI Tuesday.

Both Margulies and Hlinko remain earnest in their pursuit of Clark as a candidate. Margulies, who worked on Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, said that although he was "pleasantly surprised" by how Bush has handled everything following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, "I realized it's not enough to surpass expectations."

It was at that point, he said, that he and Hlinko started talking about how "we consistently, as Americans, we vote for the least bad option available," and that's when they began looking for a better alternative. When they looked into Clark, Margulies said, they realized he is "legitimately, the most powerful option for Americans."

Clark has received more than 30,000 letters from people looking for his entry into the presidential race. The majority are form letters from the DraftWesleyClark.com Web site, but about 20 percent to 30 percent are personalized letters sent from points around the world.

"We got a letter about a week ago from Kosovo from a family that said, 'You saved our lives, thank you, God bless you.' You can't get much more personal than that," Hlinko said Monday night.

"It sort of puts something like 'lock boxes' in a context when you're then talking about saving lives," Margulies noted, referring to the catchphrase of the Gore-Lieberman ticket in the 2000 presidential campaign.

When asked about their ready comparison between Clark and former President Dwight D. Eisenhower -- NATO's first supreme commander and another reluctant candidate -- Margulies replies, "You know, yeah, only one guy can win World War II. But, you know what, if we hadn't had Clark there we don't know what (former Yugoslav leader Slobodan) Milosevic would have become.

"We did have Clark, he didn't lose a single life, or one casualty, he led an actual coalition, not a 'coalition of the willing' that really was whoever wants to get on board before we're going to do it anyway, and you know, he made peace as well as he made war," Margulies said.

"There's something with him where when you see him speak for the first time you say, 'Wow, yeah, that's a president,'" Hlinko said Monday.

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