Novice for President

Little Rock, Ark. -- All candidates should know the first rule of politics: Find your message and stay on it. Wesley Clark apparently didn't get the memo.

Less than twenty-four hours after declaring a run for the White House, Clark flipped his opinion on the Iraq war while traveling to his first campaign stop in Florida. There, on a plane with a handful of reporters, Clark said he would have voted for the war if he had been a member of Congress. Of all issues to waver on as a newly christened politician, this was the one he should have nailed to committed memory.

After all, Clark had preached against the war for months, announcing to the world while a CNN military analyst that the United States needed an international coalition before entering Iraq. He said more imminent threats brewed, North Korea, for example, than Saddam Hussein. Somewhere between announcing his run for president and traveling to Florida, Clark's official opinion flipped.

Then, twenty-four hours later, Clark once again flopped his opinion, telling a crowd of Iowa college students that the war was a major "blunder." He emphasized to reporters in Iowa that he would "never have voted for this war, never." His campaign folk spun, saying the entire incident simply needed clarifying. Maybe. Or maybe not.

Of course, for most of 2003, Clark has been a tad indecisive on key issues.

It took Clark months to declare a political party. With regard to his candidacy, he teased more than a burlesque dancer playing peek-a-boo. In Little Rock, he has also been more than difficult with local media, playing the wishy-washy card numerous times regarding photo shoots and interviews. Last week, Clark told a Little Rock news photographer he could follow him around on the day of his announcement. Then, when the photographer showed up, he was told no. Then, yes. Then, no. And by the end of the day, with only a few shots on his roll, the veteran photographer said, "After eight hours on this campaign trail, I'm ready to get off."

Clark may be a brilliant war planner and a visionary who will create a 100-year plan for the future of the United States but is he a savvy politician? It's hard to transform from insurance salesman to mayoral candidate in a day, much less jump into the crazy chaotic mess of presidential politics and be as polished and media savvy as someone who has been campaigning for twenty years.

Two things are certain: Clark is a novice politician, and the early stages of his campaign seem made up as they go. But Clark and crew have to be ready for prime time now. His coyness, which generated a tidal wave of free media, created an urgency that makes it necessary to look totally together and free of visible foibles this close to New Hampshire's big day.

The Clark splash last week was certainly enough to generate a lead in some polls, a stellar debut for someone who never even ran for student council. Clark plays well on television and people who don't prefer Howard Dean or George W. Bush like the four-star general. Take the South, where Clark's name is all the rage as Southerners like his pro-military background and his hobby as a newbie hunter (since his 2001 return to Arkansas) -- important aspects in a place like Dixie where the Civil War is still fought in re-enactments on weekends and society schedules life around hunting seasons.

But for all the positive buzz, the Clark campaign has a long road to travel, not just the one lined with flag-waving fans and babies waiting to be kissed.

The Clark campaign is a unique one that began in reversal with draft movement volunteers knocking on his door instead of the old-fashion way. Instead of Clark and crew starting with empty offices and establishing procedures, they begin with thousands of volunteers who feel that they "own" the candidate because of their hard work leading up to an announcement.

The volunteers, not Clark, created a network of support, and now the campaign officials have a delicate task -- deciding which ones of the volunteers were fine for the draft movement but not quite good enough for the campaign. Some will be tolerable; some won't. Feelings will be hurt and egos will be damaged. The power dynamic of the campaign is entirely different than John Kerry's or Dean's or even Al Sharpton's.

And with few key campaign leaders in place, Clark could find himself in a critical ambush sooner rather than later.

On Monday, a new allegation was thrown at Clark by Republicans who found a photograph of Clark as a three-star lieutenant general who directed strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington. In the photo, taken nearly 10 years ago in the northern Bosnian city of Banja Luka, Clark stood with notorious Bosnian Serb commander and indicted war criminal, Gen. Ratko Mladic. Clark wore Mladic's military cap; Mladic's donned Clark's cap. The State Department opposed the meeting, but Clark insisted.

Such mini-scandals are nothing new.

Bill Clinton was bombarded with them after announcing in 1991, including the smoking marijuana and draft dodging ones. But Clinton had smart strategists in place to deal with such bothers while he preached his message to the masses. Clark doesn't. It's almost a week into the campaign battlefield, and Clark troops have yet to organize fully, still without a campaign manager, a savvy press operation or a headquarters where volunteers can hang their hats.

For every hour that ticks by without people in place, Clark's opposition will enjoy an open season of scandal hunting and allegations on a soldier obsessed with organization who should know better.

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