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JOAN VENNOCHI

Is Clark the 'package' Democrats seek?

WANTED, for Democratic presidential nominee: a candidate the country can buy in 2004 as a "complete package."

Wesley K. Clark, a retired Army general and former CNN commentator, is now officially the 10th Democrat to enter the 2004 presidential race. A basic unknown to the average citizen, his military credentials and media contacts serve as springboard for his finally launched, much-predicted candidacy.

The Clark pitch goes like this: He is combat tested but against the Iraq war. That makes him Howard Dean with military experience or John F. Kerry without a vote authorizing George W. Bush to wage war against Saddam Hussein.

But Clark, 58, could also turn out to be one very big surprise package. And, as anyone who has ever opened up a birthday present knows, there are good surprises and bad ones. Place Clark in the heat of a political campaign rather than the heat of combat, and there is opportunity for more than the usual good, bad, and ugly.

Asked about Clark's chances, Bill Clinton said it best: "Whether he can get elected president, I just don't have a clue, because once you've been a four-star general, it's kind of hard to have people talk to you the way they talk to you when you're running."

Clark might be a great candidate -- even the eventual nominee. But whatever enthusiasm there is for his entrance into the race is mostly testament to the failure of the other nine to sell themselves as the complete package the Democratic presidential nominee must be to beat Bush.

At this moment, polls are not Bush's friend. Forty-eight percent of Americans say Bush is "in over his head," according to a new poll by James Carville's Democracy Corps. While any data from the Clinton-Carville axis hardly count as unbiased public opinion, the numbers are credible enough in light of other polls showing the president's approval ratings down on the economy and Iraq. However, domestic and foreign affairs could both improve by November 2004. In the end, voters will be taking the measure of the economy, the war, and the president against a still-undetermined opponent.

Clark's late entrance gives the rest of the field a sorely needed chance to regroup and broaden their campaigns and messages.

Right now, Dean is the antiwar, finger-waggling ex-governor of a tiny, nondiverse state. Kerry is the Vietnam veteran and Massachusetts liberal who wants to be defined only as a Vietnam veteran. Richard Gephardt wants to be the candidate of jobs and labor but is mostly a captive of the congressional establishment and a very stiff head of hair. Senator Joseph Lieberman is a remnant of Al Gore's failed effort to prove he could be exciting by picking the first Jewish candidate for vice president. John Edwards has dimples and a Southern accent. Florida Senator Bob Graham has a Southern accent. Al Sharpton is black and humorous in more ways than one. Carol Moseley Braun is a black woman and former rising star, since crashed. Dennis Kucinich is a true believer whose beliefs are far too left to be nationally palatable.

And now there is Clark, rallying supporters around battlefield credentials and promises to restore jobs and economic opportunity. In doing so, he is trying to hijack the role of "complete package." Clark is battle-seasoned enough to be antiwar in Iraq, especially up against Bush and his National Guard service. But he has much to prove in terms of comfort level on the domestic and diplomatic fronts.

Being accepted as a "complete package" requires more than pushing the correct ideological buttons, although that is always the starting point in American politics. In every presidential face-off, voters ultimately consider intelligence, maturity, life experience, and that great intangible, likeability. Do they want to have a beer with the candidate (or, with liberals, a glass of chardonnay)? In 2000, Bush passed the likeability test with half the country, which gave him the benefit of the doubt on intelligence and maturity. In 2004, voters will be less inclined to like him enough to reelect him if Americans are still losing their jobs at home and their lives in Iraq.

Bush will be an even tougher sell if the candidate running against him is a better buy and a more complete package.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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