Despite some striking similarities to former President Bill Clinton, retired Gen. Wesley Clark doesn’t automatically lay claim to the crucial Southern support that proved vital to Mr. Clinton’s political success.
Already vying for the title of “Southern candidate” are Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, but neither has come close to locking down that support, which leaves an opening for Mr. Clark.
“He looks and smells and acts more like a Southern candidate. His military background bodes well for that,” said Morris Reid, a political strategist who was an official in the Clinton Commerce Department.
While Mr. Clinton never enjoyed uniform Southern support in general elections, his Southern roots were crucial to his primary victory in 1992 and helped define him as a centrist Democrat with voters in the general election. And he did win a handful of Southern states, such as Kentucky and Tennessee in 1992 and 1996, a critical part of successful Democratic presidential campaigns during the last 50 years.
“It’s still up for grabs,” said Lee Bandy, a columnist at the Columbia State newspaper in South Carolina, referring to Southern support. “There’s no consensus candidate out there, even in South Carolina.”
In February, South Carolina will host the third Democratic primary contest and the first one in the South. It already is viewed as the “live or die” contest for Mr. Edwards of North Carolina, whose campaign aims to splash onto the scene big with a win in his neighboring state.
Steve Jarding, Mr. Graham’s communications director, said it’s too early to know how popular Mr. Clark will be in the South.
“I don’t think Wes Clark polls well in the South as opposed to anywhere else just because he jumped into the race,” Mr. Jarding said.
Out of the gate, he predicted, Mr. Clark will only “steal from the frontrunners.”
“He did rain on John Edwards’ parade, though,” added Mr. Jarding, who headed Mr. Edwards’ political action committee before joining Mr. Graham’s campaign. “On the day poor John announced his candidacy, Wes Clark says he’s going to announce the next day. The brightest lights of the day were definitely on Wes Clark.”
In South Carolina, polls show Mr. Edwards leading by less than the margin of error and Mr. Graham hardly registers.
“Edwards is really not catching on here like he ought to,” Mr. Bandy said. “Graham is not catching on either.”
He dismissed the idea that Mr. Edwards can blow off the contests in Iowa and New Hampshire and bounce into the lead in South Carolina.
“He has to win, place or show if he hopes to do well in South Carolina,” Mr. Bandy said. “Otherwise he comes in here sucking wind.”
Most agree Mr. Clark’s sterling military career will help him in the South, especially South Carolina, which has a large veteran population.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts kicked off his presidential campaign in South Carolina in the shadow of the flag-draped USS Yorktown. He trotted out veterans he fought with in Vietnam who spoke about Mr. Kerry’s bravery.
But, said Mr. Reid, Mr. Clark must show he is more than just military medals. For example, he must tap into the South’s sizeable black vote.
Ron Faucheux, political analyst and former editor of Campaigns and Elections magazine, said, “You become the Southern candidate when you become a clear favorite among African-American voters in the South.”
“When you start showing me that black mayors of the South are supporting him, when you show me that black state legislators are supporting him, that’s when I say he’s become the Southern candidate,” he said.