BEDFORD, N.H.—When I last saw Wesley Clark, I called him "Howard Dean with flags." Since then, he's reinvented his candidacy and made himself an even bigger threat to the former Vermont governor. He's now Howard Dean with flags and tax cuts.
Clark seems pretty close to emerging as the consensus pick for the only realistic non-Dean candidate. By sitting on the sidelines during the various Dean-Kerry, Dean-Gephardt, Dean-Lieberman, and Dean-"Insert Democratic candidate here" scraps, it appears that Clark's benefited from the "Dean vs. the Washington Democrats" infighting. He's in a statistical tie with Dean in a national poll. And by camping out in New Hampshire while everyone else makes a two-week sprint toward Iowa, Clark hopes to rise even further in the Granite State polls, too. (To be fair, not everyone is in Iowa. Joe Lieberman is spending a good deal of time in New Hampshire. But Clark strategist Chris Lehane rightly says that Lieberman is like "Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense: He's dead and doesn't know it yet.")
For Dean, Clark poses a slight problem because the general can't be painted with the same brush as Edwards, Gephardt, Kerry, and Lieberman. He's not a "Washington Democrat." He didn't vote for No Child Left Behind. He didn't vote for the Iraq resolution. The question for Clark is whether he will emulate Bill Clinton as the Comeback Kid, turning a potential second-place New Hampshire finish into an expectations victory, or whether he's just the voters' Fallback Guy. After all, the usual sad lot of the first runner-up is to sit around and vainly hope that the reigning Miss America won't be able to fulfill her duties. (Of course, there is always that chance that Howard Dean posed naked somewhere … never mind.)
As a candidate, Clark has improved his skills dramatically since I watched him speak in September. He's smoother, more coherent, and more concise. He's also willing to give voters at least mildly unpopular answers. At a "house party" on Tuesday (the first of several days that I'm going to be following Clark in New Hampshire), Clark tells a man concerned about job losses, "We'll probably never bring back the specific manufacturing jobs that have left." He doesn't rule out means-testing Medicare, though he does say that he's predisposed against it. (My favorite fudge on the subject: "I'm against means-testing as a matter of principle, insofar as it's at all practical.") The house is filled with physicians worried about medical malpractice suits, but Clark states his opposition to "arbitrary caps" on legal damages. "The court system really is important for ordinary Americans," he says. "The truth is if you're a poor person in this country or a person of modest means, the only way you can get legal advice is on a contingent-fee basis."
Despite the widely held belief that Clark is the candidate of Clintonian moderates while Dean is the candidate of the so-called "angry left," I don't see much evidence that voters at Clark events are more centrist or less liberal than voters I've seen elsewhere. (Exhibit A: A reporter walks up to a man in scrubs at the house party. "You're a doctor?" he asks. "An abortion provider!" is the cheery response.) At a town-hall meeting Tuesday night, one of Clark's biggest applause lines is his pledge to raise taxes on people who make more than $200,000 a year: "We're gonna ask them to be patriotic. We're gonna take back the Bush tax cuts."
But what really endears him to the crowd is his indictment of President Bush during the run-up to war. After outlining the Clark plan for Iraq—1) withdraw Paul Bremer; 2) put a non-American in charge; 3) place U.S. forces under NATO; 4) allow a rapid turnover of the country to Iraqis, "long before this July 1 date"; 5) don't let the Kurds keep their weapons, and don't give them an autonomous region—Clark mentions his Monday night appearance on MSNBC's Hardball. Chris Matthews was obsessed with Clinton's impeachment, Clark says. It's all he would ask him about. "We wasted millions of dollars and years in this country trying to find something that Bill and Hillary Clinton did wrong. And it was a waste of money and effort," Clark says. "I'd like to know why the United States Congress and this party is not demanding, every single day, an investigation into why the president of the United States misused the intelligence community, took us to a war we didn't have to fight, and still won't tell the American people the truth! That's what should be investigated! That's the truth!"
The candidate is angry, his voice rises, and the crowd leaps to its feet. It's Clark's best moment of a pretty good day. He's got them, I think, as the crowd presses around him for autographs and picture-taking. But I also can't help but think that Howard Dean would have had them on their feet from the start.