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JOAN VENNOCHI

The Clark explosion in N.H.

KEENE, N.H.

HE CHARGED into the Colony Mill like Superman, shedding his overcoat with a flourish to reveal a New England Patriots sweatshirt. About 100 men, women and children waited more than a hour for the ex-general to do a 15-minute fly-by at an old brick warehouse now converted into a fashionable retail gallery. Clark exploded over the Granite State like a shooting star. Now, bursting out of Iowa, John Kerry and John Edwards must hope the star sputters -- or shoot it down. Howard Dean needs to hold his base in New Hampshire.

As of today, Wesley Clark's history of voting Republican and his serial wavering on topics like the Iraq War are front and center.

During a conference call from Iowa with reporters on Saturday night, Howard Dean was asked to make the case for Dean over Clark in New Hampshire. Responded Dean: "I'm not going to run down Wes Clark. I think my views are well known. He's a good guy, a Republican."

Joe Lieberman's campaign recently put out a release headlined, "We admit it. We screwed up. Wes Clark has taken 7 different positions on the war, not 6." The press release detailed all seven permutations. Yesterday, before Iowans caucused, the Kerry campaign wondered, "What football jersey will Wes Clark wear today?" citing his donning of a Green Bay packers shirt while campaigning in Wisconsin and Sunday's Patriots' garb.

Until now, no one asked Clark any tough questions. Voters here greet Clark with a lower-key version of the rock star treatment Dean is used to receiving. He blasts answers like a general blasts orders, bursting with confidence, competence and alleged caring. He is the general who negotiates peace and stocks Pampers. He fixed potholes his wife pointed out to him on military bases and will fix public education, too. There is no problem too small -- or insurmountable. If he were president, Osama bin Laden would have been hauled in a long time ago.

This time, the return to New Hampshire features two New England candidates, Dean and Kerry. For both, Iowa's result may be tempered by the judgment of New Hampshire voters who are familiar, for better or worse, with their track record in public office.

Raynor Smith, a high school mathematics teacher from Keene, waited with his wife, Marty, to meet Clark because "I want to see what he has to say. He is obviously an intelligent man. He is a Rhodes Scholar, he played a role with heads of nations, he has international ability." Dean, he said, lacks any comparable experience. When it comes to Kerry, Smith said, "He is a good, honest person, but I don't think he has the charisma Clark has. He doesn't impress me. He seems to waver. I'm sick of politicians who waver."

"We are interested in General Clark. We are interested in Howard Dean as well. I don't think we have made up our minds," said June Rawlings, 77, of Chesterfield, N.H., as she and her 78-year-old husband, Frederick, waited patiently for Clark. The Rawlings have two grandchildren stationed in Iraq, so Clark's military credentials are appealing. But Dean also offers something they consider valuable: "He doesn't belong to anybody," said Frederick Rawlings.

John Kerry? "He doesn't appeal to me as much," said June Rawlings. "The others seem more middle class and down to earth."

As Iowa illustrates, voter opinion shifts dramatically. What will ultimately influence the Rawlings is their desire for "anybody but Bush" in the White House, said Frederick. "I don't think he knows what he is doing," said Rawlings of the president. That is why he and his wife switched their registration from Republican to Independent, so they could vote in the upcoming primary.

That desire to beat Bush plays to Kerry's strength.

How will Iowa affect New Hampshire? On Saturday night, Dean said: "Only the voters of New Hampshire know that. They are extremely independent. They will support the person they think will be the best president of the United States."

Indeed, New Hampshire residents have the power to ignore the spin, the hype and the polls and vote their independent minds. That makes Clark a factor in New Hampshire -- unless and until voters decide he's no super hero, just an ex-general in search of a new command post.

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

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