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The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
-Ronald Reagan

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Tuesday, September 09, 2003

I took my own advice and went to my local Draft Clark meetup last night. My general impressions were favorable. It was definitely an organized meeting with an agenda, not a chatty get-together. The meeting organizer was sharp and has contacts with Clark meetup organizers from other cities and draft Clark web sites.

The crowd was smaller than the Dean meetup I went to about a month ago, but still respectable - about 20 people, and it wasn't the only Clark meetup for the area, and probably not the largest. The Dean group struck me as generally less diverse: heavily white, young, and male. The Clark group tended to run to 30s and 40s, but ranged from college age to a couple probably in their 70s. It was probably more diverse ethnically as well, although a clear majority of participants were white. It's clear that the Clark campaign has got an effective national network up and running, with volunteer organizers in every major city tied together over the Net. That makes possible things like the video message that was played at meetups around the country yesterday - but not at ours, where we had the wrong equipment. In terms of grass roots organizing and digital tools we are behind the Dean campaign, no doubt of that, but we have a solid framework and the capacity to grow very rapidly once Clark announces and a formal campaign can launch.

All of this makes the argument, recently made here and elsewhere, that it is too late for a Clark candidacy, very dubious. Clark is far ahead of where Clinton was at this stage in 1991 or McCain in 2000. And he has the capacity to move faster. Even a few years ago, when the McCain campaign took off, it had to get the vast majority of donations by sending out snail mails and waiting for return checks to come back. That's a slow process that an insurgent campaign doesn't have time to wait for with new primaries being held every week.

It's clear that the Party establishment, rightly or wrongly, believes that a Dean campaign is a losing proposition, and is looking for a white knight to block it. None of the eight currently running against him has been able to step up to the plate. That leaves a huge opening for Clark. Particularly in the red states, party leaders who dread Dean are eager to see a ticket headed by a southern general. So Clark is likely to have support from party leaders, especially if his campaign starts to take off. And rumor has it that the Clintons are already very active in maneuvering for him behind the scenes.

Will he also be able to reach party activists and interest groups? What they want, above all, is to send Bush packing. The reality is that Bush has, even now with his Iraq adventure looking more and more like a disaster, a strong edge with voters on national security. It's probably his biggest edge and his best hope for winning. Dean accentuates that edge; Clark erases it. And at the same time, Clark has a degree in economics, so he can also talk about jobs and Bush's disastrous tax cuts. If Clark gains traction, liberals and unions will be getting on board, not getting in the way.

So the key question is how will voters react, something that can't be answered until Clark starts serious campaigning. But the outlook here is positive. Clark hasn't run for office, but he's been making quite a few televised appearances. It's proven that he comes across well on the tube and that he can think on his feet under questioning. He has also been giving speeches, where the audience reaction is reported to be positive. So there's every reason to expect that the candidacy will not be done in by Clark's lack of political experience.

The ingredients are all there. that doesn't guarantee success. Bob Kerrey, for instance, also seemed to have an ideal background for a candidate: Medal of Honor winner, modest background, success winning elections in a red state, even a glamorous movie star girlfriend. But his campaign just never got off the ground. The same thing could happen to Clark. But it isn't likely.