Is Wesley Clark a Democratic Ike or Bill’s Clone?

The handlers, donors, endorsers and student supporters who had gathered to see former General Wesley Clark speak on Oct. 14 at Hunter College held their breath after one of several high-school students standing behindthe candidate suddenly faintedonto the_auditor-ium stage.

Mr.Clark, who is still a very new candidate, stopped his speech, joined the crowd surrounding the unconscious teenager and tried to help at one point by loosening the victim’s belt. After an uneasy minute, and with emergency workers now seeing to the collapsed student, Mr. Clark turned back to the podium.

“I think he’s going to be O.K.,” he said. “He’s got his eyes open. I don’t know if any of you are veterans and have stood in parades, but they always told us, ‘Don’t lock your knees.’ But this does happen. We’re getting him the first-aid he needs, he’s conscious and alert, and we’ll get some folks up here to take care of him and help him up.”

The crowd burst into applause at the announcement, but it wasn’t clear how much of the relief was being expressed because of the healthy prognosis, and how much because of the way Mr. Clark handled the situation. (A minute later, the student revived and walked off the stage to more applause.)

Although the litany of miscues committed by Mr. Clark’s young campaign have become standard boilerplate in the media’s daily progress reports, none were apparent at Hunter College. (The fainting student represented about the only unscripted moment of the day.)

From a grassroots-dominated draft effort just weeks ago, the campaign’s presentation has become increasingly organized and-at least outwardly-under control. The emerging pattern is to hew close to Mr. Clark’s greatest strength and sole qualification for being President-his accomplished military career-while taking advantage of the newness of his candidacy to avoid uncomfortable specifics.

The event at Hunter College was a perfect example. Billed as part of a roll-out of substantive proposals, the event’s only new policy announcement was a noncontroversial, feel-good idea that also served to call attention to Mr. Clark’s military service. The program he announced was part of his plan to foster a “New American Patriotism” and called for the creation of a massive new volunteer corps.

“We’ll call it a Civilian Reserve Corps,” Mr. Clark said. “I’m offering to reinvigorate America’s ethic of service, to tap our vast reservoir of skills, talent, generosity and energy and offer millions more Americans the opportunity to serve their community, country and international causes.”

Whatever the merits of his proposal, such patriotically themed initiatives provide Mr. Clark with a strong vehicle for his candidacy, both by highlighting his biography and incorporating the most successful elements of some of his opponents’ campaigns.

For example, any discussion of public service ties neatly into Mr. Clark’s own story, the theme of which is his service in the Army from Vietnam through the Kosovo campaign in 1999. “It was my belief in service that led me to West Point,” he said. “It was the year after John F. Kennedy admonished us to ask not what our country could do for us, but … what we could do for our country. I found the answer wearing the uniform of the United States Army. I went to Vietnam. I was hit by four rounds and came home on a stretcher. Others left the Army; I stayed in.”

It also allowed him to discuss his own hard work and early poverty as a central part of his everyman appeal, much like John Edwards, who frequently talks about his background as the son of a mill worker, or Richard Gephardt, who often recounts the story of relying on government aid for the treatment for his ill son. “We had 20 jobs,” said Mr. Clark. “We were always on the road …. It was a great standard of living, as long as you didn’t value cash flow.”

But his biggest applause lines were the ones that could have come straight from one of Howard Dean’s rabble-rousing speeches, railing against the idea that liberals are unpatriotic. “This is a patriotism that recognizes that democracy demands dialogue,” he said. “It demands discussion and disagreement and dissent. And there is nothing-nothing-more patriotic than speaking out, questioning authority and holding your leaders accountable, whether in a time of peace or a time of war.” This line cued massive whoops from the gallery-where, moments earlier, 21 enterprising students stood in a row and held signs that spelled out “Columbia Loves Wes Clark”-and energetic applause from the rest of the crowd. (Among those in attendance were Representatives Charles Rangel and Steve Israel, and key donors like Jonathan Tisch and Victor and Sarah Kovner.)

“That line was really powerful,” said Ms. Kovner after the event. “Coming from him, it has real meaning.”

Mr. Clark is also borrowing quite liberally from one Democrat who isn’t running this time around: Bill Clinton. It has been well documented that many of his current staffers are veterans of the Clinton-Gore campaigns. Mr. Clark’s proposed program is itself more than a little reminiscent of AmeriCorps, one of the centerpieces of the Clinton administration’s legislative legacy. This, too, is probably not a coincidence: Clark campaign chairman and chief executive Eli Segal was one of the program’s great advocates in the Clinton administration.

“I think, in him, people see a lot of the strongest points of all the other candidates-whether it’s the war record, or his struggles with money, or the fact that he can be a rabble-rouser,” said New York City Councilman Eric Gioia, a former Clinton administration official who attended the speech but has yet to make an official endorsement. “He has had the benefit of playing Monday-morning quarterback, watching all the other candidates peak and fall over the last months, and now can cherry-pick from what worked best for them.”

In his speech, Mr. Clark continued his direct attacks on the Bush administration, this time for failing to leverage the post–Sept. 11 surge of patriotism into increased public service, and for using the attacks to implement “tax cuts for the wealthy.”

The general, who had a reputation in the military as a shrewd politician, is playing it safe. Judging by his standing in public polls, and by his fund-raising figures, it’s a strategy that’s working-at least for now. “He’s painting with a broad brush, but as far as the public is concerned, he’s still being introduced,” said Mr. Gioia. “The real test for him is obviously going to be to show that he’s more than just the composite candidate and that he’s a real flesh-and-blood winner-that there’s something there. For now, though, I’d say he’s doing the right thing.”