The General in His Labyrinth

Before the Iowa caucus, which Wesley Clark chose to bypass, the general was busy wooing voters in New Hampshire with one clear message: I can beat George W. Bush.

The results of the Iowa caucus -- in which John Kerry swept the state with John Edwards coming in second place and Dean a far third -- have changed the game entirely, and Clark's battle now looks a lot more complex.

Clark sits in the middle of a wildfire blazing out of control. On one side, distinguished New Englander Kerry, going for the veteran vote; the other side, the play-nice Edwards vying for the Southern populist vote. Dean is a distant flame, still burning but not near as fierce as it was a week ago. That creates a major dilemma for the Clark campaign, which focused a lot of energy on protraying him as the perfect choice for the anti-Dean voter while assuming that the veteran vote was theirs and that the Southern vote sat on the back burner. Longtime politician Kerry now seems to half-own the veteran vote instead of Clark, a four-star general and former NATO commander.

All week, Clark has had to defend previous controversial statements about his party affiliation, his stance on abortion, his support, or not, of the Iraq war and his statement that under a Clark administration another Sept. 11 would never happen again. Leading into the nation's first primary, defending old statements is not a sane strategy.

Hours after Iowa, Kerry began gaining in New Hampshire polls, pushing Dean and Clark into a battle for second. The backlash in the mainstream media against Dean -- with his surprisingly big defeat and strange concession speech -- has been fierce, and so his drop in the polls is more understandable. But with Clark, the drop is far more perplexing. If he had a strong populist message that was truly resonating with voters, he would be holding steady or gaining. He's been unable to generate much fresh positive news coverage and break out of the Iowa doldrums.

Edwards, a North Carolinian, could give Clark a true marathon run on Feb. 3 when South Carolina, Oklahoma and Missouri -- which Clark was counting on to favor the state's native son Dick Gephardt -- become the focus. Lieberman could be still in the mix, too, especially in Oklahoma where his sister lives.

While it's easy to second guess Clark's skipping of Iowa, the campaign seems to have lost some focus after Monday night, scrambling to figure out what to do. The campaign held a conference call Wednesday, insisting Clark is in this battle for the long haul even if it plays long into March.

"The goal is to win the nomination not beat any candidate," said Craig Varoga, Clark's field director.

He added that there is not one scenario that has not been discussed. Some campaign insiders stress that they never anticipated Edwards gaining strength so early, but rather had prepared for Edwards in February.

The official campaign line is that they have been paying close attention to various primary states while other candidates have focused on Iowa and New Hampshire. Clark's campaign insists that they have organization in places where Kerry, Edwards and Dean don't. True, Clark is strong in Oklahoma but Edwards is gaining and has concentrated on the state's rural areas -- the same strategy he used in Iowa.

And in Missouri, which is now anyone's taking, the Clark camp was caught this week scrambling to find a voter file; they hadn't bought one because it was considered Gephardt's turf. It's problems like that one that increasingly worry Clark's grassroots support, which began urging Clark to run for office last summer.

The Clark campaign has stressed all along they simply want a strong finish in New Hampshire. To get that is tricky. Clark can't attack Kerry because Edwards set the stage in Iowa that nice guys finish second. Clark has to hope that his solo dominance in New Hampshire a few weeks ago and Dean's self-destructing fiasco will place him in a silver place finish.

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