PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- As much as retired Army General Wesley K. Clark might want to avoid the issue, it confronts him at every turn: For him, this has turned into a race between the general and the lieutenant-turned-senator.
After Monday night's surprising Iowa caucus returns, Clark and his aides had to prepare for a scenario they hadn't anticipated: The old putative front-runner, non-veteran Howard Dean, had been replaced by a new one, veteran John F. Kerry.
While Senator John Edwards languished low in the New Hampshire polls for months, his second-place Iowa finish makes him, too, a Granite State factor.
So now, buried between the lines of Clark's stump speeches and appearances, comes a new message: He embodies Kerry's national security credibility and Edwards's Southern background.
"I'm that package all in one vote," Clark said at a press conference in Portsmouth. "I'm a veteran. I've worked in leadership at the highest levels of government . . . I'm from the South, my mother was a secretary." Clark invited the Kerry comparison in a series of veterans-related events yesterday that his aides said had been planned long in advance.
He attended a "Veterans for Clark" press conference in Portsmouth in the early afternoon and held a town hall-style meeting at an American Legion post in Rochester in the evening.
Last night at another such event, Brian Hardy, a VFW post commander from Littleton, N.H., while introducing Clark, harshly criticized Kerry, saying the senator had had "an extreme makeover" from a life of "privilege and wealth to being a man of the people."
Hardy, a former Dean supporter, called Kerry "one of a long line of presidential pretenders from New England who ran and failed."
Clark campaign officials quickly distanced themselves from Hardy's attack. Matt Bennett, Clark's communications director, said: "We did not know he was going to say that, and if we knew we would have asked him not to." Clark himself told the crowd he disagreed with Hardy's statement and considered Kerry "a distinguished senator."
In every encounter with the press this week, Clark has been asked to compare himself with Kerry. Asked about Kerry's military rank at a press conference at his Manchester headquarters later that night, Clark said, "It's one thing to be a hero as a junior officer. He's done that, and I respect him for that. He's been a good senator. But I've had the military leadership at the top as well as the bottom."In less strained moments, Clark tries to shift the subject to the specific experience he gained as he rose through the military. "I'm not trying to draw a distinction between my rank and Senator Kerry's," Clark said in Portsmouth. "We were both young officers in Vietnam. We both pursued different paths of public service."
Instead, he emphasized his experience helping to negotiate the Dayton Accords in Bosnia and leading NATO's war in Kosovo.
"We need a leader who's been on the front lines of battle and in the backrooms of diplomacy," he said in a speech about Iraq at the University of New Hampshire.
Still, for several veterans who declared their loyalty to Clark yesterday, his perceived electability was his most important asset.
"John Kerry cannot win below the Mason-Dixon Line. Clark can conceivably take Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas, and West Virginia," said Gene A. Friedman, 87, a World War II veteran. "John Kerry has great credentials, and he has good military credentials, but he's a Massachusetts liberal."
Joanna Weiss can be reached at email@example.com.
Just pulled this off Drudge