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Clark's liberal appeal makes a mystery

Published Aug. 27, 2005

A New Hampshire Republican who walked into the gymnasium at the Pembroke Academy on Saturday afternoon and saw the crowd assembled to hear retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark had a one-word reaction: "Wow!"

At least 1,000 people had jammed the building in this Concord suburb (Clark's Web site estimated it at 2,000) for a rally 10 days before Tuesday's New Hampshire primary.

John McCain was the last person to draw crowds of that size as he moved toward a 18-point win over George W. Bush in New Hampshire four years ago.

That Clark has star power is clearly shown by the passion he has ignited here. Whether he has staying power _ as McCain ultimately did not _ remains to be seen.

Although he cast himself as the maverick challenging the Republican establishment in 2000, McCain was a veteran politician with a long record of winning tough campaigns in Arizona. Clark is a political novice who never has faced the withering cross-examination he will encounter this week, as the survivors of the Iowa caucuses descend on New Hampshire and discover that this newcomer to their party could derail their ambitions unless they can take him down.

While they have been busy in the cornfields, Clark has been camped here, polishing what now has become a very effective stump speech. It is Reaganesque in tone _ consigning most of the policy specifics to the Web site and focusing on what he calls the core values of his campaign: patriotism, faith, family and leadership. Each of them, while evoking universal approbation, is given a sharp partisan edge.

True patriotism, the wounded Vietnam veteran and retired four-star general says, is the opposite of the spectacle of George Bush "dressing up in a flight suit and prancing around on the deck of an aircraft carrier."

True faith, says this son of a mixed marriage of a Jew and a Methodist, but a Baptist worshiper himself, consists of heeding the religious obligation to help lift those who are in need _ "and the only party that does that is the Democratic Party."

All this is red meat for the rabidly anti-Bush Democrats, many of whom were first attracted to Howard Dean, the early favorite to win New Hampshire. But Clark's Arkansas base (and his backing from the Clinton crowd), his military background, and his mastery of Reaganesque rhetoric convince some pragmatic Democrats that he would run better against Bush than Dean could.

Dortha Morrils of Merrimack, a transplanted Mississippian, said she was first inclined to support Dean but has decided on Clark. "He has a better chance of beating Bush, because he understands the Southern mind. And he is a little softer around the edges than Dean."

But the dilemma for the Clark campaign is that the things that might enable him to wrest the win from Dean in New Hampshire are not the things that would help him later on in the South.

Dean's support here is skewed liberal _ not just on the war but on social issues as well. As Clark competes for that vote, he finds himself moving left. He implied, for example, that he favored the right to abortion throughout pregnancy _ and then corrected himself. He promises not only to cut taxes for the working poor and middle class but to raise them for "the super-wealthy."

He has surrounded himself here with super-liberals and people whose rhetoric about Bush makes Dean seem like a pussycat. Civil rights activist Mary Frances Berry told the rally here that as a "peacenik," she believed Clark was the last person who would take the country to war. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore called Bush "a deserter" for his unexplained absences from Vietnam-era Texas Air National Guard duty and said he loved the fact that Clark's tax plan "sticks it to the rich." On Sunday, Clark welcomed the endorsement of George McGovern, the symbol even to many Democrats of the political ruin that can result from veering out of the mainstream.

What makes all this odd is that Clark, more than anyone else in the field, may have been positioned to challenge Dean on Feb. 3, when the battle shifts to South Carolina, Arizona and a batch of border and rural states.

Can the four stars on his uniform and the Reagan-like values pitch be made to complement his left-leaning policies and endorsements _ or will they feed the doubts his opponents want to sow about the true identity of the man who became a Democrat only when he announced for president? He is a hot candidate _ but also the real mystery man in this Democratic field.

+ David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. +

Washington Post Writers Group