Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Commentary:Howard Dean and Wesley Clark are faux pas front-runners

HOWARD DEAN’S slippery slope is his tongue.

With the Iowa caucuses less than a week away, Dean is spending much of his time doing what he has been doing for months now — explaining himself in what seems like a daily exercise in damage control. Last week, for example, Dean found himself having to explain why he dissed the Iowa caucuses four years ago. In a Canadian television interview, the former Vermont governor denounced the Iowa caucuses as “dominated by special interests” and said they “don’t represent the centrist tendencies of the American people, they represent the extremes.”

His opponents in the Democratic Presidential race pounced, and state party leaders took great umbrage. Dean tried to explain that he made those comments before he understood how the Iowa caucuses work. “If I knew then what I know now about the Iowa caucuses . . . you know, Iowa’s been very good to me. I couldn’t run for President if I didn’t have Iowa.”

Fortunately for the candidate, Sen. Tom Harkin, one of the state’s most popular Democrats, stepped forward to endorse Dean in the middle of this flap, calling him “the kind of plain-spoken Democrat we need . . . the Harry Truman of our generation.”

Harkin’s endorsement may rescue Dean from the tempest over his 4-year-old slap at the Iowa caucuses, but the Democratic front-runner could have a more serious problem on his hands. According to voter interviews in Iowa conducted by reporters, the high-flying Dean balloon may have developed a slow leak. Some Iowans are beginning to have second thoughts about Dean, who is locked in a close contest with Richard Gephardt. Dean’s gaffes, stumbles and apologies have disturbed their comfort level with the plain-spoken Democrat.

Dean is still the man to beat for the nomination at this point, but there is always the risk that something could go wrong in Iowa, where Gephardt is closing the gap, and in New Hampshire, where Dean’s commanding lead in the polls has begun to slip slightly. Polls generally overstate a candidate’s strength.

But remember, in New Hampshire, it’s not enough to win the primary. You also have to win the expectations game. Neither Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush won the New Hampshire primary their first time out, and both went on to be elected President.

For true believers, nothing so far has shaken — or is likely to shake — their rock-hard support for Dean. The biggest worry for the Dean campaign is that the main attack line of his Democratic opponents — that Dean’s careless words will make him easy prey for President Bush — is beginning to raise doubts about Dean among voters who have been leaning his way.

Meanwhile, political junkies are beginning to speculate on which Democrat in the race is likely to emerge as an alternative if the Dean campaign falters. So far, there’s no sign that Democratic primary voters have fallen hard for any of the U.S. senators and congressmen in the race. That leaves Wesley Clark, a retired Army general who entered the race late and has been picking up steam in recent weeks.

If Dean and Clark (who skipped Iowa) are the top vote-getters in New Hampshire, in that order, the race shifts to the South, where Clark, the military man from Arkansas, could have the advantage over Dean, the physician from New York and former Vermont governor. Unless Dean scores knockouts in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the primary battle could spill into early March before a nominee emerges.

One of the raps against Dean is that his blistering attacks against the President on Iraq won’t play as well in the general election as they did among antiwar Democrats. But if anything, Clark’s attacks on the President have been even harsher. If Dean is angry, Clark is furious. He has called Bush a liar and come close to accusing him of treason, saying the President should be held accountable for the 9/11 attacks that he could and should have prevented.

He told the Concord Monitor: “I think the two greatest lies that have been told in the last three years are: You couldn’t have prevented 9/11 and there’s another one that’s bound to happen.”

If he’s elected President, Clark said the American people will not have to worry about another terrorist attack. On his watch, the Arkansas traveler said, “we are not going to have one of these incidents.”

It’s time for one of Clark’s handlers to yank his chain. That has to be the most incredible statement made by any of the Presidential candidates so far. Makes you wonder whether this guy is Wes Clark or Clark Kent.


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