Candidate Clark Opens Offensive for City’s Elite

If retired General Wesley Clark is going to overcome the disadvantages that come with his late entry into the Presidential race, he will be relying on people like Barbara Layton.

Ms. Layton, an East Hampton restaurateur and well-connected Democratic fund-raiser, has been smitten with Mr. Clark ever since she first heard him speak nine monthsago. Since then, she’s been a sort of hand-holder for him on his frequent trips to New York, introducing him to wealthy Democratic donors and powerful opinion-makers at intimate gatherings all over Manhattan.

Although she has been involved in Democratic politics for years, Ms. Layton claims that she’s never met anyone quite like Mr. Clark. “I hadn’t heard a speaker like him since Bill Clinton,” she said. “I just said, ‘That’s the next President.'”

It is people like Ms. Layton who constitute Mr. Clark’s fan club among the Democratic elite, and they will be crucial to him if he is to make up for his lack of the formal organization and fund-raising apparatus that other candidates have established. While Mr. Clark has yet to begin his official campaign-as of The Observer ‘s press time, he was poised to announce his entry into the race-he has been busy wooing the rich and the influential in places like New York.

In particular, he has made frequent visits to the city, meeting privately with small groups of Democratic fund-raisers and opinion-makers to persuade them that he is a different kind of Democrat. The result: a group of very powerful friends who want to help him catch up to, and pass, the rest of the competition.

“People are looking for the voice that reaches them deeply,” said Ms. Layton, whose restaurant, Babette’s, is frequented by celebrities and media personalities. “When he speaks, people get it, and the other candidates are just not capable of doing that. They’re not. They’re not.”

“All the people who are running bring different things to table, and they all are good candidates, but I just think Clark has a better chance to win,” said Sarah Kovner, a veteran Democratic activist who is also supporting Mr. Clark.

In his most recent visit to New York on Sept. 10 to 12, the former four-star general got the kind of reception at a number of high-end meet-and-greets that would stir envy in the hearts of his prospective Democratic opponents. He was the guest of honor at a celebrity-studded mixer at the home of Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner attended by D.N.C. finance chair Maureen White, Steve Rattner, Caroline Kennedy and Karenna Gore; at a gathering of heavy donors convened by class-action lawyer Melvyn Weiss; and at a dinner party at the home of Sarah and Victor Kovner, which included key political players like Susan and Alan Patricof, Gail Furman and Alan Cohn, and Eli Pariser of the influential antiwar group MoveOn.org.

Mr. Clark will barely have time to make his dramatic announcement before it’s time to come back for more. D.N.C. committeeman and fund-raiser Robert Zimmerman, among others, is scheduled to pull together another event next week. And Ms. Layton said that plenty more are in the works.

Building Momentum

“You know, the momentum is just spreading like wildfire,” Ms. Layton said. “I just got a call just this morning by a very key operative who said, ‘O.K., so let me get 25 people together and we can raise $2 million in one meeting.'”

Few of these prominent Democrats have actually endorsed Mr. Clark, and many of them have provided help to one or more of the other candidates. But it’s nonetheless remarkable that they have taken this level of interest in a candidacy that didn’t even exist as of Sept. 16. The Clark effort, until now, has been a virtual candidacy: Between his frequent appearances on CNN, for example, and the additional attention generated by two draft-Clark Web sites, the general has managed to maintain a presence alongside the campaigning of actual candidates over the last several months without overtly appealing for any votes. Mr. Clark, a smooth performer whose media appearances are characterized by the surgical precision of his responses, has also been recipient of a steady stream of positive coverage portraying him as a patient savior-in-waiting for the Democratic Party. And in the days leading up to the promised announcement on Sept. 17, that stream has turned into a flood-all of which seems to be having an impact on the many major donors still sitting on the fence.

“I see a lot of people who I’ve dealt with over the years being attracted to him like a magnet,” said Mr. Weiss, who remains uncommitted but describes Mr. Clark as “very impressive.”

In terms of attracting support, it also doesn’t hurt that Mr. Clark seems to have at least tacit backing from his old boss, Bill Clinton, who still holds a fair bit of sway over where many Democratic donors send their money. One indication of the former President’s support is the sheer number of Clinton loyalists who are swelling the ranks of Mr. Clark’s prospective staff. (A Sept. 16 strategy meeting in Little Rock, Ark., for example, was a virtual White House reunion, with former White House aide Bruce Lindsay, Clinton fund-raiser Skip Rutherford and Clinton appointee Vanessa Weaver attending.) Another sign was the sly remark by Mr. Clinton at a Chappaqua dinner party for his wife’s supporters that was widely interpreted as a blessing of the Clark candidacy.

Mr. Clark, a career soldier who has never run for elected office, is also picking up some institutional legitimacy from Harlem Representative Charlie Rangel. The Congressman-who by rights should be supporting his Congressional colleague, Richard Gephardt-recently predicted to The Washington Post that “Wesley Clark is going to be the next President of the United States,” and is preparing to endorse Mr. Clark formally following the announcement.

The catch, of course, is that whatever big-name support Mr. Clark manages to amass won’t help him overcome certain serious disadvantages. He will, for example, start with around $1 million in pledged donations, as opposed to the $20 million that some other campaigns will have at their disposal. And the very fact that the other candidates have been raising money for so long will make it doubly hard for Mr. Clark to get support from the many key fund-raisers who have already done work for his opponents.

“It’s one thing if someone gave their personal money to someone and then wanted to write a check to [Clark],” said Democratic consultant Howard Wolfson. “But it’s very different to have raised money for a candidate from 50 of your friends and then support someone else. It would be a good way to lose a lot of those friends.”

And money may be the least of his problems. On top of his late start, there is his political inexperience, his overhyping by the media, his reputation in some military circles as a “Clinton general” (which is not, in said circles, a compliment), a widespread suspicion that he’s only in the race to become Vice President, and the fact that he is not Dwight Eisenhower.

The underwhelmed reaction of one veteran of Democratic politics was not unusual: “I’m sure lots of people are going to get excited about Wes Clark, but it’s awfully late for him to be relevant.”

Whatever practical obstacles there are, Mr. Clark’s more fervent supporters seem prepared to brush them aside.

“I see a leader who’s able to get the whole picture and connect the dots,” said Ms. Layton. “He’s brilliant. He’s able to frame and articulate issues with such intelligence, such vision, guts and charisma. And needless to say, he’s a head-turner, and he is, as far as I’m concerned, the only compelling messenger right now out in the field.”