Wesley Clark may be leading the Democratic presidential pack in the national polls, but he is far behind the front-runners in the crucial early state races that will heavily influence, if not decide, who will become the party’s nominee.
With behind-the-scenes support from former President Clinton, the retired four-star general from Little Rock, Ark., who was supreme commander of NATO forces, catapulted into the lead in the national polls right after he announced his candidacy last month and has held that position ever since. Three weeks after he entered the contest, he is still drawing 22 percent in the national Gallup Poll — outdistancing his four top rivals who have been campaigning for more than a year.
But national polls are largely irrelevant in the state-by-state delegate-selection contests that usually turn on county-by-county, street-level politics that narrowly appeal to each state’s local, cultural and political interests.
Throughout most of this year’s Democratic presidential campaign, until Mr. Clark’s sudden appearance, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut had been the front-runner in the national voter polls, even though he trailed well behind his chief rivals in the key early caucus and primary states. On the other hand, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has not held the No. 1 ranking in the national polls, but for months he has led and continues to lead all of his rivals in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses and the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary.
Despite his national front-runner ranking, Mr. Clark was running in fifth place in Iowa, according to internal Democratic campaign polls, and in fifth place in New Hampshire, according to the latest American Research Group poll.
Mr. Dean leads the Democratic nine-member field in New Hampshire with 29 percent, followed by Mr. Kerry with 19 percent and Mr. Lieberman and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri with 6 percent each. The rest of the pack trails them with 3 percent or less, though a substantial 29 percent of the Granite State’s Democrats say they are still undecided.
Earlier this summer, Mr. Kerry led in New Hampshire with 25 percent, only to see Mr. Dean eat into his support with a fierce barrage of attacks on President Bush’s policies in Iraq and on the economy that made the senator’s campaign message tame by comparison.
“Mr. Kerry is all nuance and no message,” independent pollster John Zogby said.
Mr. Gephardt had 10 percent support or more in July, only to see his support erode into the single digits over the past two months. Mr. Dean’s closest rivals contend that if they can finish in second place in one or both of these two contests, they will be able to climb back into contention in the next group of primaries on Feb. 3, which includes South Carolina, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota and Oklahoma.
But most political strategists say that will be difficult to do if Mr. Dean sweeps both contests, which not only will give him significant political momentum going into the six Feb. 3 contests but also will likely drive some of his rivals from the race.
Strategists in the other campaigns say that if Mr. Kerry were to lose in Iowa and in his home state’s next-door neighbor, where he is well-known, he will be finished. Even Mr. Gephardt’s chief New Hampshire strategist, Jim Demers, says the former House Democratic leader “cannot afford to lose in Iowa and New Hampshire” and continue his campaign.
Of the six primaries on Feb. 3, most of the focus is on South Carolina to see who can show the strongest support in the South. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, whose candidacy has been stuck in the low single digits across the country, leads in his neighboring state with 16 percent among likely Democratic voters, according an American Research Group poll.