All Quiet on the Northern Front


NASHUA, NEW HAMPSHIRE—As the Democratic candidates began landing here last week, this state braced for a surge of whirlwind politics before the primary. But during the recent spate of bitter cold, this northern front lay relatively quiet as events played out in Iowa. Dennis Kucinich, though, stoked some fire by telling teenagers at a high school in Penacook that some of the Pentagon’s budget should go to pay for universal free public education through college. He studiously avoided the topic of abortion; he once was against it. Joe Lieberman, at a town meeting in Concord, promised to reverse Bush’s partial ban on stem cell research and wants to set up a center to search for the cure for various diseases.

Howard Dean broke off from Iowa for one day of stumping through the southern part of the state, basking in the warmth of his supporters, arguing for his own form of Yankee fiscal conservatism and citing his admiration of Harry Truman. He gently chided Wesley Clark, increasingly portrayed as a serious rival, but pretty much ignored John Edwards, another thought by some to be moving up. If, as the press reports, Dean is reeling from opposition attacks, you’d never know it to see the man in action here.

In the flesh, Clark presents a puzzle. Portrayed as a charismatic figure, he strikes one as a little wacky. (One of his political opponents likened him to a Stepford Wife.) Not that this means anything to the professional politicians who want people to think he is Clinton’s choice. If you vote for Clark you’re voting for Bill, whom the general consults just about every week on matters of strategy and issues. His staff comes straight out of Clinton’s political camp.

But in a general election, the Clinton connection might not be such a hot idea. The conservative base hates the Clintons, and if there is one thing that will get that bloc out to vote (independents are allowed to vote in either party’s primaries), it is to meddle behind the scenes in the Democrats’ presidential campaign. Furthermore, liberal voters grow furious at the thought of Bill and Hillary trying to dislodge Dean.

Under sometimes persistent questioning by a friendly crowd at a town hall meeting in a high school auditorium in Hudson, a suburban town just outside Nashua, in the populous southern tier of the state, Clark was sometimes startling and other times just confusing. He said such things as “I wanted to become an investment banker so I could earn enough money to give money away.” He explained his role in helping Acxiom, a company that developed a software program to help hunt for terrorists and was trying to sell it to the Department of Homeland Security, by saying that he introduced company execs to top Bush administration officials. “It turned out that for me to help them, I had to register as a lobbyist,” said Clark, who insisted that he thought he was doing the right thing. “We were trying to keep America safe—that’s what lobbyists mostly do.”

Howard Dean takes a victory stroll.

(photo: Cary Conover)

To demonstrate just how competent he was in civil life, the general told of the obstacles to be overcome in running the huge Los Angeles school district, administering thousands of teachers and tens of thousands of students. It sounded like one hell of a tough job. But Clark never actually held this job, he was just offered the job. He did not take it.

“I was just wondering what you’ve done for veterans since you were relieved of your command,” asked one woman questioner. “Oh . . .” replied Clark, “well, it’s an interesting question. First place, I actually wasn’t relieved of my command. I did leave three months early as the result of a policy quarrel with the Pentagon. And I stood up to help a million and a half Albanians be saved from ethnic cleansing. And there were some boys in the Pentagon who didn’t like that much, especially the ones who had cut deals with the Republican-led Congress. And so I saved a million and a half people—they got even. I think it was a good trade.”

Clark’s ties to the military inform his approach to politics. When it comes to military matters, he puts the emphasis on NATO—more than the UN. Clark wants to set up a joint anti- terrorism task force of countries in and out of NATO to hunt for bin Laden and other terrorists, along with giving more aid to Pakistan.

Then there’s the question of whether Clark is a Democrat or a Republican. Dean’s take: “I think Clark’s a good guy, but I truly believe he’s a Republican. . . . Harry Truman once said that if you run a Republican against a Republican, a Republican is going to win every time. I don’t mean offense to General Clark—he’s a good guy. And I don’t mind that he voted for Nixon and Reagan—that was a long time ago.”

The general was further chided by New Hampshire ex-governor Jeanne Shaheen, chairwoman of Kerry’s campaign, for “his votes” for Nixon, Reagan, and Bush, but then Shaheen herself voted for Nixon. Clark shrugs it all off. “It sure seems like a conversion, doesn’t it?” he told one Nashua woman. “Actually, I wasn’t a Republican a year ago. I was never a Republican.” He told his Hudson town meeting: “When I got out of the military, I was courted by both parties.” But he added, “There is only one party in America for me. . . . I live the values of the Democratic Party.”

It’s hard to know these days what those values are, but in Clark’s case they appear to be steeped in military life. Those values seem to be telling him that as a civilian, he needs to follow a moderate, pragmatic course, set most likely by advisers. Political insiders could care less about these inconsistencies. They see the possibility of painting Clark as a strong, patriotic figure with a wealth of firsthand military experience to run the war on terror and hunt down Al Qaeda—the job Bush couldn’t handle. Most of all it’s the ties with Clinton that count.

Joe Lieberman and Berliner Mark Milstein hold a summit meeting at a back table in The Tea Birds Cafe.

(photo: Cary Conover)

John Edwards remains pretty much of a sleeper. He managed to squeeze in a brief trip to Exeter early last week for a town meeting, then dashed back to Iowa. In the Exeter town hall, 300 townspeople huddled in their overcoats, sitting in a circle against a background of what was meant to look like ye olde small town New England meeting. They all had done this before, probably many times, and knew by heart their parts as bit actors in what Edwards hoped would be a photo op in a folksy setting made for a TV ad. The North Carolina senator, looking as smooth and cute as the president of a glee club, told them how he had risen from the working class to become the politician who faced off against Jesse Helms’s powerful machine and won. The audience politely applauded. He went on to say it was a “moral imperative” to solve the problem of two Americas—one rich and one poor. He is against war profiteering in Iraq. But not against the war.

Edwards couldn’t keep from descending into the muck of good ol’ boy Southern politics. He told how he could win the South: “They’ll say, ‘Well, you know, George Bush is so strong in the South, he’s so popular in the South’ . . . Again, let me go back to simple language: The South is not George Bush’s backyard, it is my backyard!”

The audience listened patiently but remained poker-faced. Absolutely not one clue as to what they were thinking. Again, they applauded politely, without much enthusiasm, while the senator’s staff whooped and hollered, trying to give the gathering the look of a mad and crazy political rally. And sure enough, within an hour or two, the Edwards PR machine was citing the Exeter town hall meeting as yet another indication of the senator’s gathering strength.

Additional reporting: Ashley Glacel and Alicia Ng