General decides to wait for battle

Wesley Clark: Four-Star General
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The Independent US

Wesley Clark, the retired four-star general and former Nato supreme allied commander, took a strategic decision soon after becoming the last candidate to join the race for the Democratic nomination. He would not compete in Iowa, but, instead, lead his first assault in next week's New Hampshire primary.

We still do not know how wise a calculation that was. But he does seem to have got one thing wrong: as his poll numbers surged in the past two weeks, he predicted the New Hampshire derby would come to down to himself versus Howard Dean.

That two-horse race is not to be, after John Kerry's upset in Iowa and John Edwards' strong showing. "I don't know what to call it now," he conceded yesterday.

But he does have the comfort of knowing that his campaigning style of recent weeks seems to have paid off. The tactic has been to emphasise the man over the general. In fact, diluting the image of a man of war seems to have been his primary mission. This is a candidate, after all, whose most high-profile endorsement has come from Madonna.

Television adverts in New Hampshire have stressed a difficult childhood. A native of Arkansas (where he settled with his wife, Gert, after seeing his military career unexpectedly cut off by the Pentagon in 2000), Clark lost his father when he was four. His mother made ends meet with secretarial work. "Wes Clark will never forget what one job can mean to a family's life and a young child's hopes," the adverts say.

A star student at West Point, a Rhodes Scholar, a veteran of Vietnam where he was shot, Clark, 59, had a career he cannot hide. He oversaw the Nato operation that expelled Slobodan Milosevic from Kosovo. But he was forced to retire after clashing with Pentagon superiors, who disliked his penchant for hogging the spotlight.

Others have questioned whether Clark is really a Democrat at all. He voted for presidents Nixon and Reagan. But Clark knows how to push Democrat buttons, especially on education and healthcare.

"I think his image does seem to have softened," said Jennifer Donahue, an analyst with the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. "Having a human touch on a retail level here in New Hampshire is so important."