WASHINGTON, Jan. 6 (UPI) -- Why did retired Gen. Wesley Clark "take a Sherman" and bow out of consideration as Howard Dean's vice presidential running mate Sunday? Clark is clearly "going for broke," still convinced he can grasp the Democratic presidential nomination. But it does not appear to be a wise strategy.
When Clark stormed into the Democratic presidential race, polls immediately catapulted him to the top of the pack and his many admirers proclaimed him the hottest thing since America's last soldier-president, the much-loved Dwight Eisenhower. But instead, he is increasingly looking like Al Haig, another four-star general and former NATO supreme commander turned presidential wannabe, but one who sank without trace once he jumped into the primary waters.
To his credit, Clark has worked hard to make himself a credible candidate on domestic issues. He is highly intelligent, diligent and masters issues fast with his powerful intellect. On Monday, he unveiled a new "soak the rich" $30 billion tax plan to bring relief to poor and middle-class families with children. And his staff continues to insist at every opportunity that he will wax strong in the South and West. Well, at least they can hope.
For Clark is being unexpectedly whipsawed from two directions. He now finds himself fighting a political war on two fronts, and he is losing both of them.
First Democratic front-runner Howard Dean is continuing to surge from strength to strength. A few weeks ago he picked up the endorsement of 2000 Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. On Tuesday, he picked up the endorsement of Gore's most potent challenger, former Sen. Bill Bradley from New Jersey. And he has also recruited a bunch of foreign policy heavyweights from the Clinton administration to run his own foreign policy team.
Dean's relations with the leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus are excellent and he may even choose one of their most legendary figures, civil rights veteran Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, as his vice presidential running mate.
All this is devastating for Clark. He got into the "Great Race" at the urging of the Bill and Hillary Clinton inner circle presenting himself as the defender of the Democratic Party establishment against Wild Man Dean. But Dean, without sacrificing a grain of his "against the Beltway" underdog appeal, has now co-opted much of the party establishment, enough, certainly to outflank and isolate the rest. Where does that leave Clark?
Floundering in his message and eroding badly against Dean in his own supposed heartland constituency is where it leaves him. Polls show Clark trailing Dean badly in South Carolina and Arizona, and he doesn't look that strong in Oklahoma, either.
Admittedly, these polls show lots of voters undecided. But in fact this is even worse news for Clark because undecided voters flow overwhelmingly to the candidates with the "big mo" -- the momentum on their side in the closing days of any campaign. Democratic election politics prove the wisdom of Jesus' famous words. "To him that hath shall be given and from him that hath not shall be taken away."
Clark is focusing on New Hampshire and he is filling the state with his money and his team. He still has a healthy campaign chest and is running ambitious ad campaigns in the key Heartland states he has sensibly targeted. But so far, Dean continues to vanish beyond the event horizon, as out of reach of the flailing ex-general as the Road Runner ever was of Wile E. Coyote.
Now Clark is suffering the fate of losing politicians and generals alike. As the mo' swings against him, troubles pile up and previously minor, insignificant itches turn into major plagues. His is John Kerry.
In Iowa where Clark is not running actively for support in the Jan. 19 caucuses, Kerry is surging. If he does well there, his campaign in New Hampshire could be revitalized. Currently Clark is holding his own against Kerry in New Hampshire but their battle there is neck-and-neck. Suddenly Kerry, who has been savaged by Dean's rise to the top, enjoys the prospect of possibly displacing Clark as the "stop Dean candidate."
Once the dazzling but misleading comparisons to Eisenhower wore off, Democratic primary voters could see that Clark was no Ike and never will be. His campaigning style remains artificial, stumbling and forced. He has lacked the intellectual self-discipline to stay on a simple focused message in one campaign appearance after another. And now that Dean has co-opted the party center, he has left Clark exposed to the charges of political carpetbagger. As the Arizona Republic reported Tuesday, Dean campaign strategists are already eagerly preparing to paint him as a "real Democrat" against Guess Who.
Clark, after all, supported the Iraq war and even voted for Republicans for president in the past -- although, it should be noted, not for President George W. Bush in November 2000. Democrats charged up by Dean no longer believe Clark is essential to give national security and foreign policy credibility to their ticket and if Iraq casualty rates rise over the next few months, and/or al-Qaida can pull off another frightful terrorist "spectacular" in the continental United States, they will believe that even less.
Even if none of those things happen, Clark's biggest trump over Kerry, his supposedly magnetic charisma, is already peeling off. Indeed, the more assiduous Clark gets in unveiling his domestic policy initiatives, the more he sounds like one of the pack of congressional presidential hopefuls frantically and futilely chasing Dean, but only eating dust in his wake.
All this could yet change. Clark might after all defy the polls and humble Dean as he expected to in the South and West. But so far, the poll numbers and the other data flowing in from the field all point against it. Clark is not breathing down Dean's neck. The cold, icy ghost of Al Haig's presidential meltdown is breathing down his.