Operation White House

Wesley Clark wasn't even a declared Democrat a month ago. Now he's their leading presidential candidate, neck and neck with George Bush in the polls. But can he translate this popularity into something more substantial? Rupert Cornwell joins him on the stump in New Hampshire
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On a damp and misty Saturday morning in the gritty old manufacturing town of Dover, New Hampshire, more than 300 rapturous supporters have gathered to greet the newest Democratic candidate on the steps of City Hall.

"Go, Wes, go," they chant. And in one of those moments that make politics the most exhilarating business on earth, everything suddenly seems possible - even that a career soldier who has never run for election in his life could, in 13 months' time, be elected to the most powerful office on earth.

Wesley Clark is bringing his infant presidential campaign to New Hampshire, scene of the first primary next January. It has been said that all political careers end in failure. But he, like many before him, will testify that in this tiny state, unsurpassed theatre of political dreams, they can begin with an optimism bordering on ecstasy.

Only in early September did Clark confirm he was a Democrat; it has been less than a fortnight since he announced that he would bow to the urgings of his supporters and enter the race for the White House. But national polls already show him vaulting to the head of the Democratic field - level with, even beating, George W Bush in a putative match-up. In Dover, for two hours of suspended disbelief at least, it truly seems the deliverer of the lost Democratic host of voters is finally among them.

Whatever else, Clark has star power. At 58 he is sleekly handsome, with chiselled but delicate features. He is less tall than you expect, but it is the eyes you really notice; dark brown, narrowed and intense, clues to the intelligence and will-power within.

These qualities have taken Wes Clark far: from first in his class at West Point military academy in 1966 to a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, and a Masters degree in PPE. Then came Vietnam, where he was wounded, and a swift rise through the military hierarchy to the rank of four-star general. As supreme commander of Nato, he prosecuted the alliance's first war in 1999, to drive the Serbian army from Kosovo.

Along the way, he worked in the White House, taught economics and, most lately, made some serious money as a businessman. Before and during the Iraq war, he was a consultant with CNN, a measured critic of the campaign who impressed with his poise and on-camera communications skills. "Whatever Wes does, he does it really, really well," says a friend who has known him from his Oxford days. "Even then, he was very certain of himself."

But he is a complicated man - far more complicated than Dwight Eisenhower, the last of the dozen generals the US has elected to the presidency in its 227 years' existence, and with whom Clark is often compared. "Sometimes you feel that there's a hysteric lurking inside Wes," the friend notes - "but he conceals it brilliantly."

Clark can be thin-skinned. He has a habit of micro-managing that may not serve him in the messy political universe where orders are not always obeyed with military precision. At the Pentagon, he was seen as a "political" general, but in the end he was a military success but a political failure.

To a friend, he once confessed how he felt he never quite fitted in to the military establishment: "I was never enough of a yes-man, I was always asking questions." The final bust-up came during Nato's war in Kosovo in 1999, when his job made him a public figure. Clark enraged his superiors by demanding ground troops, and by his perceived fondness for the limelight. "Get your fucking face off TV," William Cohen, the Defense Secretary, exploded after watching Clark hold forth one time too many.

Then came the famous episode when he ordered General Sir Michael Jackson, in charge of Nato forces around Kosovo, to prevent the Russians from seizing the airport at Pristina as the war ended. "Sir, I'm not going to start World War III for you," Jackson replied - and both London and Washington sided with him, against Clark.

Humiliatingly, the commander who drove Slobodan Milosevic's forces from Kosovo without a single US or Nato combat casualty was effectively sacked by Cohen, barely a month after the war was over. Clark remembers it as one of the two worst days of his life (the other was when he was wounded in Vietnam).

But during this debut in New Hampshire, no such mortal failings are on view. The evening before Dover, the candidate holds a town hall meeting at a New Hampshire college. "This is amazing," a beaming Clark declares as he makes his way through the adoring overflow crowd.

Peter and Teri Lehnen, a middle-aged couple with their own computer business, are there too, not as Clark supporters but Democratic loyalists who - as is the wont of pampered New Hampshire voters - like to inspect a new candidate in person.

"We expect to meet all of them at least once," says Lehnen, who is already giving money to other Democrats in the race, including the front-runner, Howard Dean. "We get to see them close-up, beyond the soundbites, their body language, whether they are condescending, whether they are genuinely interested in what worries people."

Clark passes the test handsomely. He has none of the tell-tale starchiness of many generals out of uniform. Supple, charming and articulate, he fields questions on education, the economy and health care as well as Iraq and national security matters. We learn that he would decriminalise the use of marijuana for medical purposes, but opposes a constitutional amendment allowing gay marriage.

He freely admits he won't have a proper health-care plan ready for a few weeks. His economic thoughts are also fluid, though he wants to repeal the Bush tax cuts for the very wealthy. Most movingly, he deals with a woman who served in the army and was sexually harassed, without redress. "I apologize, I really do. I was a senior officer in the army, and obviously we didn't do our job." He promises to meet her privately afterwards to discuss her case - and does.

Inevitably, however, Iraq dominates, and Clark is scathing. "Force must be used only, only, only, as a last resort." Bush, he says, has acted recklessly, destroying respect for the US around the world. As for the doctrine of "pre-emptive" war, "Every nation has the right of self-defence. What is nutty is that you start a war to prevent a war that was never going to happen." Herein lies the bottom-line appeal of Clark - his military credentials to challenge Bush on national security issues, and win the argument.

The session lasts an hour, and afterwards Peter Lehnen is highly impressed. "He was very thoughtful and imposing, very sensible. I'll certainly support him financially." But he adds, "If Clark starts changing his positions for the sake of expediency, he'll turn me off. We've already seen a bit of that with Dean."

Of the several obstacles standing in the way of Clark, the least is his belated embrace of the Democratic party. That rivals attack him for naked opportunism only confirms the potential threat they see in him.

In truth, Clark's views - pro-affirmative action, pro-choice, in favour of budget discipline at home and multilateralism abroad - are pretty similar to those of another eminent general, who happened to join the Republicans. Just as you could imagine Colin Powell as a New Democrat, Clark could equally easily be a moderate Republican. Indeed, he admits to having voted for Reagan, and only in May 2001 he was captured on film extolling the virtues of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al.

In fact, both Clark and Powell are centrists. Both appeal to the independents, and not only independents, dismayed at the mindless polarisation of American politics. Take Charles Galemmo, a 42-year-old chef who plans to start his own restaurant, and who typifies those who joined the grassroots campaign urging the general to run.

"I was fed up with Bush," he says, "I looked into the other Democrats. They were OK. Then I saw Clark on TV in July. He's pretty charismatic and I agreed with 95 per cent of what he said. The fact he hasn't got detailed policies doesn't worry me. He's stated his principles. As for the details, things change when you get in office - they never come out like you expect."

And who knows? If Wes Clark can build on this early momentum, the nomination and even the White House may be within reach. But even if he fails, his very presence in the field will have made it harder for the President to beat the Democrats with the national security stick.

Indeed for Bush-haters, no prospect is sweeter than the first candidates' debate of autumn 2004. The George Bush who avoided service in Vietnam (but had the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln delay its return to port to permit his silly Top Gun moment) turns to his crisp and polished Democratic opponent: "General..." The posters swirling outside Dover's town hall, depicting a smirking boy-Bush in pilot's gear and a steely Wes Clark with four stars on each shoulder, make the same point. "The Pretender vs the Contender." Clark's real problems are a lack of time and money. Dean and his other main rivals have been running for more a year, while the first primaries are less than four months off. The college meeting was arranged at 36 hours' notice; so few were the available posters that the organisers had to ask for them back afterwards. As for money, Dean may raise $15m (£9m) in the third quarter, Clark will do well to raise a fifth of that. But familiar friends are at hand who know a thing or two about helping an Arkansan Democrat beat a sitting Bush.

Bill Clinton and Wes Clark, despite the similarities of their backgrounds, have never been especially close. But the great ringmaster of Democratic politics is said to look very kindly on a Clark candidacy - and not because he sees one as a mere stalking horse for Hillary Clinton. This general does not enter contests in the hope of finishing second.

None the less, a host of operatives from Bill's epic 1992 campaign are working for Clark, including Bruce Lindsey, the ultimate Clinton adviser and keeper of secrets. Lindsey was there in Dover, quietly watching proceedings from a distance, just as a dozen years ago. Lindsey and his ilk know how to run campaigns, they know how to raise money - and wouldn't be around if they didn't think their man had a chance.

And already a theme is emerging in the campaign. It might be summed up as "give the country back to the people it belongs to". In Dover before Clark spoke, they played again and again "This Land Is Your Land", Woody Guthrie's bittersweet anthem of the Depression era, capturing the wonder of America, and yet its enduring injustices.

Iraq obviously figures large. Clark was a critic of the war, but is even more critical of the rough-heeled swagger with which Bush handled it. "He claimed to be a 'compassionate conservative'," he told the crowd at Dover, "but he's turned out to be heartless, reckless and wrong. Billions of people around the world used to love this country, but now they are afraid of us."

With each passing day, Clark sharpens his language against a President who wraps himself in patriotism while pursuing policies that widen the gap between rich and poor, and erode civil liberties: "Patriotism is about more than flags. Patriotism means protecting freedom not only from those from abroad, but also from those occupying positions of power in Washington, who want to take it away from us."

The cheers are deafening, but after half-an-hour the rally is over. Clark is gone, and by mid-afternoon Dover has reverted to its normal inconsequential self. His campaign is a work in progress, and the general must be counted an outsider. But these are strange political times in America. For a little while at least, on dank autumn days in New Hampshire when a presidential primary beckons, no mission seems impossible.