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For Democrats, a win in Iowa comes one vote at a time

Late start leaves Clark trailing rivals in organization

DES MOINES -- For all his high-wattage candidacy, Wesley K. Clark lags far behind his Democratic presidential rivals in the months of organizing and hours of handshaking that it takes to win the Iowa caucuses.

The state's Jan. 19 caucuses, the first test for Democrats in the hunt for the nomination, present a formidable challenge for any candidate, let alone a political neophyte such as Clark who entered the race only last month.

"You cannot run a credible campaign in Iowa from 30,000 feet," said Gordon Fischer, the state's Democratic chairman. "You can't throw up a couple of television commercials, drop in a couple of times."

Between now and January, this is the candidate's task: persuade supporters to head out on a winter's night and attend a two-hour neighborhood meeting where they will argue with friends and neighbors and then publicly declare their preference for a candidate. Organization is critical, as is one-on-one persuasion.

In enlisting Iowans willing to commit to his cause, Clark trails his more established rivals.

Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri won the Iowa caucuses in his unsuccessful White House bid in 1988 and still has the contacts throughout the state. Senator John Edwards of North Carolina earned good will when he spent nearly $200,000 in campaign cash to help elect Iowa Democrats in the last election.

Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, has campaigned in the state for more than a year. He has more than 100 staff members in Iowa and an organization in each of the state's 99 counties.

Dean often acknowledges the work that has to be done, opening conversations with activists with the line: "I know you're an Iowan, and I'll have to talk with you five times before you even think about supporting me."

Ron Parker, a Democratic legislative staff member, says, "People expect the candidate is going to come into their living room, come to their coffee shop, come to the union hall, and once usually isn't enough.

You've got candidates who have been coming here for a year and have talked to some activists a half-dozen times and still can't get them to commit."

Clark also is up against the nature of who turns up at the caucuses -- the committed, my-party-first-and-foremost type of Democrat.

The state counts 526,426 registered Democrats, but only about 100,000 are expected to show up for the sessions. They are certain to examine Clark's mixed political history. The retired Army general announced that he was a Democrat only last month, and he has drawn criticism for a record of having praised Presidents Nixon, Reagan -- and, before the Afghanistan war, George W. Bush.

"To what extent are these hard-core activists going to grant that he's a Democrat?" said political scientist Dennis Goldford of Drake University. "That's a problem because the very characteristics or resume that may help you in the general election may prevent you from getting the nomination."

Still, that independence could work in Clark's favor.

"As a Democrat, I'd welcome any Republican who wants to be a Democrat," said veteran legislative staffer Paulee Lipsman, who supports Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut.

Added Michael Gronstal, a Council Bluffs Democrat who is minority leader of the state Senate: "Sometimes you celebrate the return of the prodigal son."

Clark makes his second campaign appearance in Iowa this week, joining Senator Tom Harkin, a four-term Democrat who is neutral in the presidential race, for the senator's "Hear it from the Heartland" forum. Organizers said the demand for tickets has been strong.

"Everybody is going to want to kick that tire," said organizer Jeff Link.

Democrats in Iowa say it probably is too late for Clark to assemble a full-fledged field operation. Most talented organizers have signed on with other campaigns. "In Iowa it's difficult because you have to have qualified staff who understand the caucus process," said Governor Tom Vilsack, who is neutral so far.

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