Growing Pains in Clark's Campaign
Wesley Clark looked like an experienced politician recently when he stopped in El Dorado, Ark., a small but powerful oil town with lots of green to give to someone gunning for the White House. He talked about the issues facing America and even quipped about the 2000 Florida voting nightmare.
"George W. Bush will need brothers in 49 other states to take this election," he said.
The crowd went ballistic with applause and even a few "Amens." Some said he was a Harry Truman for the 21st century, a fiscal populist who won the crowd with common sense and straight talk. Clark shook hands, kissed babies, and listened intently to people's problems, especially veterans who spewed a litany of complaints about healthcare. Clark clearly connected with the crowd and so did his wife, Gert. Enthusiastic, Clark seems to look at the campaign trail as a way to make thousands of new friends.
With rah-rah cheers and sign waving, Clark looked ready for prime time to the 500 people who showed up at the festival to hear him speak. What the voters in the audience didn't realize was that the Clark campaign, the workings behind the scene, was anything but ready to play politics with the big boys.
Within a few days of that appearance, the Clark campaign faced soap opera style hijinks as Donnie Fowler, campaign manager and former field director for Gore 2000, left amid turmoil brewing in a campaign that has never found its footing. In political circles, the Fowler story bubbled amid spin that this was just a slight bump in a new campaign and gossip that the problems were much deeper than a campaign manager packing his bags and saying adios.
The problem, say some, is the power of Mark Fabiani and Ron Klain, two former Gore 2000 gurus, who often see Clark's campaign from afar in Washington. The pair has suggested Clark open headquarters in Washington, signaling to some that Fabiani and Klain do not want to relocate to Little Rock or give up their client base, which could become a conflict as the campaign rolls along.
But other aspects bubble in a campaign that started with a draft movement and grassroots volunteers and flipped dramatically when Clark announced to the realm of experienced politics. Even before then rifts brewed between two draft movements, both begging for Clark's attention. Now, draft workers are unhappy and jealous. Some thought they would have bigger campaign roles. Others thought they would net large salaries or travel to glamorous campaign stops. That hasn't happened, and it won't. This is real-time politics, not the "West Wing."
Volunteers complain that they don't receive materials or call-backs. Clark's media operation still appears unfocused with more than five spokesmen jockeying for their name in the papers and their mugs on TV screens. Campaign workers want to spew their own personal spin even if it means ignoring the cardinal rule of politics -- stay on message and out of the headlines.
Political geeks who live for such fireworks point to one critical component missing thus far in the Clark campaign -- a political director who can ensure Clark's name shows up on ballots in key states without missing deadlines. Some states require complicated petition signatures, such as a number of signatures from certain counties within states along with high filing fees. Other states require just a filing fee and some simple forms. As one Democratic political consultant said, "You can have a great candidate who the people love, but if his name isn't on the ballot, people can't vote for him."
With such internal chaos, it's easy to forget Clark is a former general turned candidate. Since his three weeks on the trail, Clark has seized politics with Superman strength. He has wooed Hollywood, courting the likes of Steven Spielberg and Clintonites such as Arkansan Mary Steenbergen and her husband Ted Danson.
"Hollywood loves celebrities and winners," said Peverill Squire, a University of Iowa political science professor. "Because Clark is different from the rest of the field he gets celebrity status, at least for a few more weeks. But Hollywood will only stick with him if he appears to be a potential winner. If his campaign tanks, the Hollywood money and attention disappear.
Clark has already raised $3.5 million both from large and small donors -- no small feat for a newcomer. He is ahead of rival Howard Dean and George W. Bush in some polls and could be a serious contender in early primary states, especially New Hampshire and South Carolina. The initial burst of attention may have waned and soon he could be scrambling for attention like the other eight candidates.
"He still sticks out because of his unique credentials, and that will be true as long as national security issues are prominent in the campaign," said Squire. "But if economic and other domestic issues come to dominate the debate Clark will be at something of a disadvantage. To be something other than the flavor of the week he has to become more than a one dimensional candidate running a one dimensional campaign."
Clark has a long way to go. He needs to rein in the backstabbing nastiness of his campaign organization and focus on future strategy and problematic issues that have crept up since late September.
Senator and presidential contender John Edwards questioned Clark's position as a paid board member of Arkansas-based Acxiom Inc., a Little Rock data analysis company. In 2001, Acxiom which signed a $300,000 contract with Stephens Inc., a powerful Little Rock brokerage house and one of the largest off Wall Street, to obtain Clark's help in lobbying the government for homeland security business. Clark worked for Stephens until early this year.
Even after Clark left, he continued under contract with Acxiom, helping the company with consulting. He gave up the contract when he announced for his candidacy. A privacy group has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission against Acxiom and JetBlue Airways Corp., which has acknowledged that it had given information from about 5 million passenger records to a Defense Department contractor. Acxiom provided additional demographic information to the contractor, which produced a study that was purported to help the government improve military base security.
Edwards said Clark should explain his involvement with Acxiom, especially since Clark has raised privacy concerns about post-Sept. 11 anti-terrorism laws. Clark left Acxiom Thursday, just a few hours before the third Democratic presidential debate in Phoenix, where he could have faced a showdown with Edwards about the issue. He also resigned Thursday from WaveCrest Laboratories, a maker of innovative electric motors, and Internet security company Entrust, Inc.
This week, the Washington Post reported that Clark may have violated FEC laws when he received payment for three speeches, already scheduled before Clark's presidential plans. The speeches, for which he was paid $30,000 or more each, focused on his campaign and criticized Bush's Iraq policy. The FEC considers payments for paid appearances contributions to the candidate. Corporations, unions and universities cannot pay for campaign-related appearances for presidential candidates.
The campaign said Clark won't give any more paid speeches and will return the money he was paid.
While that issue didn't raise its head at Thursday night's debate, Clark's wishy-washy stance on the war from a couple of weeks ago and his speech at an Arkansas Republican fundraiser did. It's natural that Clark, who was leading in a national CNN/Gallup poll Thursday, would take some hits from his Democratic opponents. Clark held his own as an outsider amid six inside Washington squawk boxes and Dean, who also seemed to signal to watchers he was an outsider and proud of it.
Still, a debate is as much of a snapshot of political environment as a poll is. Clark should have resigned from the corporate boards before his candidacy. He also should have realized taking money for speeches while seeking votes was not the brightest idea. What would have been non-stories became stories. Such actions show Clark is reacting, which is the worst kind of campaigning, rather than acting to promote his message of New American Patriotism.
For all the daily drama, Clark knows the one thing any battle needs is the strict organization of its soldiers. On Friday, he announced key positions in his campaign. Among names like Dick Sklar, the Balkans' former ambassador, and Mickey Kantor, former National Chair for Clinton/Gore 1992 and Secretary of Commerce, there was John Hlinko, a draft worker who has had internal strife with members of other draft movements.
Clark supporters hope that when he returns to Little Rock this weekend he acts more like a general who led the military negotiations for the Bosnian Peace Accords at Dayton instead of a campaign virgin letting politicos in Washington dictate his future.