There's no doubt that Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, a medical doctor and former governor of Vermont, has excited young voters. With his upturned fists and shrill, outspoken dislike for the policies of George W. Bush, he echoes the disenfranchisement of many young (and not-so-young) Democrats. His hot-tempered "anger" and populist posturing has motivated voters like few candidates before him in recent memory, causing him to be compared to everyone from Harry Truman (a comparison he makes himself) to George McGovern and to both Presidents Roosevelt. And, for the past few months, his national poll numbers have enjoyed a lot of empty space between them and the rest of the nine Democratic presidential candidates up against Bush this year—at least until now.
Recently, a national CNN/USAToday Gallup poll put another face close to level with Dean. Retired four-star Gen. Wesley Clark, the U.N. commander who put the hearty boot-stomp of justice on Slobodan Milosevic's Croatian ethnic cleansing back in the 1990s, has recently closed distance between himself and Dean. Dean's numbers still ran a healthy 24 percent in the Jan. 2-5, 2004, poll but Clark clocked in at 20 percent, and with a 4-percent margin of error in the poll, Clark may be nose-to-nose. The same poll also painted the decorated general as more "electable," having a point lead over Dean against Bush.
The Clark campaign is skipping the media-filled clamor of the Iowa caucus and has focused his efforts on New Hampshire and touring the southern states on his "True Grits" campaign. Clark, a native of Arkansas with very close ties to fellow Arkansan and former President Bill Clinton, visited Jackson Jan. 5 on his first stop on that tour.
Attending the event were personalities such as Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Rickey Cole and state NAACP head Derrick Johnson. Both seemed friendly to Clark, but could offer no endorsements this early in the fight. U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., offered strong support, saying he had met Clark during his military career. Taylor has straddled the bipartisan fence in his largely conservative state, being one of few Democrats to favor all four articles of Clinton's impeachment. Taylor stood by Clark, touting Clark's experience and compassion as the type of mind to pull the country out of the lethal Iraqi quagmire and expand the middle class by pushing minimum-wage increases (to $7 per hour, to be exact) and snatching away some recent tax cuts for individuals with incomes over $1 million a year.
Clark is also pushing to close corporate loopholes, set tougher air pollution standards for power plants and crack down on corporate polluters. And he's looking to make the first two years of college free for nearly any American citizen via a $6,000-per-year Universal College Grant program.
"Clark is the best candidate that has demonstrated that he can handle foreign affairs as commander in chief," said Mississippi State Democratic Executive Committee member John Tyson, at the event. "Bush has the approach of a cowboy. His 'it's my way or the highway' arrogance doesn't belong in the White House."
However, many Democrats are preferring more spit and bile in their candidate this year—and Dean is a passionate campaigner. "I don't think there's anything wrong with Dean's honesty. He's an honest person. He gets mad, and he expresses his anger. He has every right to be angry with the president," said Dean supporter Kellita Jones of Hernando. "Why do people say that they don't have the right to get mad? I get mad, and I don't want anyone telling me I don't have the right to get mad."
Clark, 59, can show a little anger, too, as displayed by a recent nasty little tussle with Fox News anchor David Asman. Asman had shown a graphic of Clark's quote from an earlier "Meet the Press," where Clark had said, "Bush has said the war in Iraq is a centerpiece for the war on terror. It isn't. It's a sideshow. It's simply their easiest means of access to attack American soldiers. That's all it is."
Clark called the war a "distraction" from the nation's real mission of going after Osama bin Laden. Asman interrupted, asking, "While our men and women are dying in Iraq, is it proper to call it a sideshow?"
Asman seemed to imply that Clark, a three decades-long war veteran, was downplaying the casualties in Iraq. Clark pounced on him—in front of millions of stalwart Fox fans.
"Don't you dare twist words into disrespect for the men and women in uniform," Clark shouted, angrily batting his eyes. "I love those men and women. I gave 34 years of my life to them. You better take my words the right way. This is about the president of the United States and his leadership."
ASMAN: "General, I'm just repeating your own words to you."
CLARK: "No, sir, you are not. You are playing politics …"
ASMAN: "Didn't you say that Iraq was a sideshow?"
CLARK: "No, sir! No, sir! You are playing politics with the men and women in uniform. You are, sir. And I challenge you … take it straight. You take it straight!"
Still, some Dean supporters describe Clark's more ambiguously centrist politics as a weakness, pointing out that he was a Republican just a few years ago and was even a lukewarm supporter of Bush—at least until Clark said he discovered that the president had "lied to us all."
The Clark campaign has opted out of the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses, but his name is on the ballot in the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary, where he is spending a lot of campaign time. Clark has slowly increased his standing in New Hampshire, where a second-place win could help vault him to national prominence as the "anti-Dean," particularly if the campaigns of Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., falter. Clark's campaign has also quietly raised the second-largest sum of quarterly donations at the end of 2003, a little over $10 million to Dean's $15 million; For the year, Dean has raised $40 million and Clark $15 million; Bush is expected to raise $200 million for the primary season.