What do we do now, boy genius?
No matter what anyone thinks of Wesley Clark's chances to win the Democratic presidential nomination, his decision to run will decisively change this race -- at a moment when some were about to award the laurels, a bit prematurely, to Howard Dean. For the other Democrats, this is an ominous moment, although not quite as ominous as it is for the people in the White House, who actually have something to lose already.
No poll can tell us right now whether the current excitement around Clark will swiftly boost him into the upper tier, or whether he will have to struggle for voter recognition while trying to put together money, staff and other essentials. It is safe to assume that he possesses at least as much organizational ability as any of the other candidates.
At the moment, the Draft Clark Web site links to a new Gallup poll that shows him with 9 percent support among registered voters. (That same survey, for what it's worth, offers the highly implausible news that Dick Gephardt is in the lead.) The Draft Clark site also features a Zogby poll suggesting that a candidate with Clark's characteristics would defeat Bush by 40 to 49 percent. I have no idea what that really means, if anything.
Still, 9 percent is a very respectable number for a candidate who has never run for public office before, has not yet officially announced his candidacy, and has had little recent public exposure beyond those wartime CNN segments. Clark's arrival will create serious problems for all of the leading Democrats.
John Kerry's themeless campaign has been marred lately by silly sniping ("Press alert: Howard Dean picked his nose"), and his failure to mobilize enthusiasm will contrast poorly with the energy surrounding Clark. Dean will now face real competition, and not only on the Internet. And Gephardt's last hope of winning an early AFL-CIO endorsement, or even an endorsement by one of the bigger unions, probably disappeared today. All of big labor will wait to see how Clark does. Joe Lieberman, the leading Democratic chicken-hawk, may not be so quick to demagogue the war with a general standing next to him at the debate. Poor John Edwards tried to announce his candidacy again today. (And as for Dennis Kucinich, the Cleveland vegan should have realized it was all over when he found out that Michael Moore is encouraging Clark.)
Yet while Clark may momentarily discombobulate the Democrats, his ambitions will scarcely be pleasing to the president and Karl Rove -- especially in light of their own recent lousy polling. The estimable analysts at Donkey Rising note today that Bush has fallen below 50 percent approval in a Republican poll. (It's the same Winston Group survey for the House GOP Conference that I revealed a few days ago in this space.) Those numbers warn of serious danger for the incumbent. At this point, Rove must worry about any of the Democrats who could plausibly win the nomination. And perhaps he should be most worried about this general who isn't afraid to say that he's a liberal.
[3:30 p.m. PDT, September 16, 2003]