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Catch a fire
Undecided New Hampshire voters are receptive to General Wesley Clark’s message. Can committed campaign workers translate his upturn in the polls into something more?
Primary foot soldiers

CANVASSERS ARE the unsung heroes of any political campaign. They go door to door with campaign literature and try to engage potential voters in conversation about their candidate. Their ranks are populated with students, impassioned political junkies, and, in some cases, singletons looking for a date. Regardless of motive, they’re on the frontlines of retail politics and can best gauge how the public is responding to candidates. With less than three weeks to go before the New Hampshire primary, we sent three staffers to the Granite State for a day to volunteer for the campaigns of former Vermont governor Howard Dean, Retired General Wesley Clark, and Massachusetts senator John Kerry. We wanted to see how Granite Staters — perhaps the most influential voters in the country when it comes to presidential-primary elections — were engaging with the campaigns of the leading candidates. In order to get as authentic a reading on the political climate as possible, our staffers did not identify themselves as journalists to the campaigns. That said, they were instructed to do what the campaigns asked of them; in other words, there wasn’t a saboteur among them. Our findings are below.

Camille Dodero freezes for Dean

Mike Miliard joins the Clark contingent

David S. Bernstein hooks up with Kerry's kids

MANCHESTER, NH — The folks at Margie’s Dream truck stop have seen it all. When I stop by the tiny greasy spoon early on Saturday morning to get directions to Wesley Clark’s campaign headquarters, I ask them if, with little more than two weeks to go until the New Hampshire primary, they are sick of presidential candidates yet. Almost in unison, 15 or so people laugh and say, "Yes!" One guy looks up from his eggs and points to a framed photo of Bill Clinton grinning broadly as he presses the flesh. The place is a regular stop for CNN camera crews, explains another, who jokes, "That’s why we’re all dressed in flannel today. We know what people expect us to look like."

I ask their impressions of General Clark.

"Clark? He’s an old Navy man," says one old-timer approvingly.

"Army," his pal corrects him.

"He’s a good man," says a guy in the corner wearing a Red Sox cap. "He’s a good man, and I plan to vote for him."

So, it seems, do more and more people. Wesley Clark is gaining traction daily in the Granite State. As of January 12, the ongoing New Hampshire tracking poll conducted by the American Research Group (ARG) had him at 19 percent to Howard Dean’s 36, a jump of seven points in just over a week. (Once-presumed front-runner John Kerry, on the other hand, is now polling at just 10 percent.) Nationally, a Gallup poll conducted between January 2 and 5 had Clark and Dean in a statistical dead heat. While subsequent surveys have suggested that those numbers were something of an aberration, it’s looking increasingly likely that the contest for New Hampshire will end up a Dean-Clark race. Clark’s fundraising is robust as well: his campaign raked in between $10 and $12 million in the fourth quarter, and almost $4 million in federal matching funds are on the way. And while he’s poised for a strong second-place finish in New Hampshire, many observers feel he’ll be in even better shape when the primaries swing south and west.

Howard Dean is noticing. His attacks on Clark have grown more frequent and more pointed, and Dean supporters have been handing out leaflets questioning Clark’s anti-war bona fides (despite the fact that the retired general has never actually claimed to be "anti-war"). Even the Republican National Committee has started issuing barbed denouncements. That’s good news, and for Clark it might get better still. A telling number in that ARG poll is 17 — that’s the percentage of New Hampshire primary voters who are still undecided. With nine field officers and a small army of devoted volunteers in the state, Clark is in terrific position to help them make up their minds. It’s simply a matter of building on his newfound momentum. One frigid Saturday last week, I volunteered to help do just that.

I’ve been drawn to Clark since last spring, when I first heard of the grassroots movement to draft him into the race. At first, the attraction was based on the much-discussed "electability" issue. I felt then, and still feel now, that Clark’s stellar résumé — first in his class at West Point, Rhodes scholar, war hero, supreme allied commander of NATO — was the ideal counterpoint to the GOP’s insistence that George. W. Bush, a dimwitted draft-dodger, is the nation’s only hope for security in this dangerous, post-9/11 world. But the more I read about Clark, the more I liked him: his obvious intelligence, his seemingly unfeigned compassion, his optimistic belief in "a new American patriotism" (however corny the term may sound). After he entered the race, Clark even became the only politician ever to get my money ($35 whole dollars! I figured it should be more than $25, but couldn’t afford $50). And even though the temperature hovered around the zero-degree mark last week, I was happy to canvass door to door if it meant sustaining his momentum. Over the course of the day, I spoke to dozens of people. With just one or two exceptions, the only ones who said they would definitely not vote for Clark were Republicans. Some supported him outright, some wavered between him and Dean (many, admittedly, leaning toward Dean), and many were intrigued, wanting to hear more.

In this respect, Clark’s decision not to compete in the Iowa caucus may turn out to have been very prudent. Let’s face it: he’s pretty much had the run of the place while Dean, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, and John Edwards duke it out in the Midwest. As a result, while surging in the polls last week, Clark had the latitude to rejigger his schedule, canceling a planned five-day trip west to stay on in the Granite State for three additional days of his town-meeting-style "Conversations with Clark." As I called resident after resident of the tiny burg of Candia on Saturday to invite them to one of these, the ones who weren’t apolitical grouches ("Lemme ask you something. Do you campaign guys have to call every fucking day? It’s 10 o’clock on a Saturday morning!") or GOP grouches ("Hi, my name is Mike, and I’m calling from the Wesley Clark campaign ... " "Good for you. I’m a Republican. Goodbye") seemed at least somewhat curious. One elderly woman told me she liked his stance on health care and his experience as a leader in the armed forces. One man had never heard of him — but his ears pricked up when he heard me say the words "four-star" and "supreme allied commander." Only two of the 30 or 40 I called promised to come out to meet the candidate on a bitterly cold Sunday night, but a handful said they’d think about it. The push to get these undecided voters into school gyms in Candia and Hudson and Merrimack was critical. Clark was gaining a point or two in the tracking poll every day at this juncture, and expectations were rising apace. "If we get any less than 500 people, CNN will say his support is dropping," one campaign worker told me.

Meanwhile, the converted mill building that houses Clark’s New Hampshire headquarters (it used to be home base for Bob Graham’s ill-fated primary push) was buzzing. There must have been a couple hundred volunteers — mostly twenty- and thirtysomethings, but also a striking number of fifty- and sixtysomethings. They filed in and out of the bitter cold with arms full of lawn signs and leaflets bound for Concord, Nashua, and Portsmouth. They worked the phones and filled the databases. They rhapsodized about Clark’s speech at a VFW pancake breakfast that morning ("Visionary ... cerebral") and they showed off their paraphernalia, like Clark bars and campaign buttons (ALL PATRIOT. NO ACT.). In the midst of it all, Clark strategist Chris Lehane — he was Al Gore’s pugnacious campaign spokesman in 2000 and a high-profile early defector from the foundering ’04 Kerry campaign — slouched impassively at a folding table with his cell phone glued to his ear.

SINCE THE FALL, Clark has been assiduously honing his speaking skills, focusing his message, and fleshing out his policy positions. In so doing, he has been subtly de-emphasizing the military credentials that got him noticed in the first place. That may be a smart move. Despite the punditocracy’s repeated pronouncements that national security will be the central issue in this election, not a single person I spoke to on Saturday named it as a chief concern. Instead, they were preoccupied with health care, education, taxes, and jobs.

This quickly became apparent when I headed south to canvass distant Merrimack with Mike, a 40-year-old self-professed "political junkie" from Queens who’d driven up from New York City that day, along with 70 or 80 other Clark die-hards — many of whom he’d met months before through the "Draft Clark" movement. He’d been to Manchester before. He was here when Gary Hart took Walter Mondale by surprise in 1984. And he canvassed for Al Gore four years ago. (He also volunteered for Jimmy Carter’s campaign in 1980 when he was just 17; on election night that year, he wept.) But Mike says no candidate has every grabbed hold of him as Clark has. And it’s not just because he dislikes Howard Dean. Mike admires Clark’s intellect and his passion and selflessness. And based on talks with friends in New York and New Hampshire earlier in the campaign, he could sense that more and more people were coming to share his view: "Mike," he says to me, "I think we’re betting on the right horse."

We were delivering copies of the new Wesley Clark DVD, American Son, an 18-minute profile by Designing Women creator Linda Bloodworth, who was also responsible for the 1992 Clinton mini-bio-pic The Man from Hope. (Wisely intuiting that not everyone in rural New Hampshire owns a DVD player, the Clark campaign is broadcasting American Son weekly on WNDS until the primary; it’s also available at www.clark04.com/americanson).

At our first stop, a genial, bearded man said that, for the moment, he was split between Dean and Clark. Mike asked him what he considered the most important issue of the campaign. He thought for a second ... "Who can I trust?" Then he gestured toward an Army sticker on the bumper of his pick-up truck, and mentioned he’d received the Purple Heart. Veterans’ issues are important to him too, he said, intimating that that might tilt him in Clark’s favor. "We’re gonna win," said Mike. "Ya’d better, with that fuckin’ moron in the White House!" he laughed; his sharp northern New England accent made "fuckin’ moron" sound more like "fahckin moe-ron." Then, gesturing at his porch thermometer (which read three degrees), he admonished us, "Now get back in the car, and stay warm!"

The target at the next house wasn’t home, but a guy with a grizzled face and dark-tinted glasses answered the door. "Well, I’m a Republican, so I can’t vote in the primary," he said. "But I would consider him in the general election." This intrigued us. "I don’t like this 60, 70 billion for Iraq" — he spit the word out like a piece of bad food — "all spent for something where I don’t see much good coming from it in the long run. Seems more and more like Vietnam." He’d rather see that money used for education and job creation, he said. Even Bush’s new plan to establish a permanent presence on the moon and put a man on Mars seemed more deserving.

INTERESTINGLY, THOSE two prospective Clark supporters were the only bearers of Y chromosomes we encountered that day. Last Friday, a New York Times cover story reported on the Clark campaign’s effort to engage women, who trail men in their support for the former general — a fact Clark chalks up to distaste for the Army as a "male-dominated, hierarchical, authoritarian institution." His campaign Web site features a page called "Valuing Women," with bullet points explaining his commitment to equal opportunity in the workplace, reproductive freedom, and "stepping up our efforts to fight violence against women" as "human-rights violations." And his recently softened wardrobe, trading military spit-and-polish and sharp navy-blue suits for sweaters and corduroys, has attracted an almost comical amount of attention. But even if the Times’s Maureen Dowd pokes fun at his new penchant for argyle pullovers that "conjure up images of Bing Crosby on the links or Fred MacMurray at the kitchen table," he’s got one high-profile woman in his corner. Last week Clark supporters nationwide found an e-mail in their inboxes from Madonna, who officially endorsed him, speaking "not only as a ‘celebrity’ but as an American citizen and as a mother."

The door-knocking campaign also seemed to be on its toes, targeting the perceived gender gap. Of the 30 or so homes we visited, at least 20 housed female Democrats or Independents — even if the information was sometimes a little out of date. "Thanks, but I’m a Republican," said one woman as she opened the door in her bathrobe. Apparently, the name on our list had not lived at that address for four years. "Any Democratic friends you want to give this to?" said Mike. "No. But good luck — and stay warm!" "Ah," I said to Mike as we stepped gingerly down the frozen driveway, "a compassionate conservative."

Compassionate, perhaps, but not someone who could advance our cause. On the other hand, one young professional woman was hearteningly excited to see us. "Hey!" she exclaimed as she held her dog back from the door. "Yes! Right on!" She’d been intrigued by Clark, she said. She seemed to want to like him, but she wanted to know more. "Well, what better way to spend a freezing Saturday night than curling up on the couch and watching the Wes Clark DVD?" I joked. "No, I’m gonna!" she smiled, noting that she’d been feeling like Clark "needs more exposure." As we walked away she hollered after us. "Thanks! I have some people I want to show this to!"

The Clark campaign is addressing the exposure issue, and slowly but surely the hard work in New Hampshire looks to be bringing about the desired result. At one house we visited, the woman at the door admitted Clark is currently second in her mind to Dean; she attributed her support for the Vermont doctor to the fact that she’s a nurse practitioner. But after a call earlier that week from the campaign, she said that Clark, while still second, was a "stronger second." She said she’d been reading up on his stance on health care — to extend insurance coverage for more than 30 million Americans, including everyone under 22, for instance — and it had piqued her interest.

But even probable supporters don’t necessarily want to stand at an open door in near-zero-degree weather and discuss the finer points of Wesley Clark’s foreign and domestic policy. As we urged one mother to consider giving Clark her vote, she braced herself against the arctic blast coming through her front door. "Okay, I promise!" she said briskly. "Now go! Scoot, scoot!"

Mike Miliard can be reached at mmiliard[a]phx.com

Issue Date: January 16 - 22, 2004
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