Spurious rumors of a Hillary Clinton candidacy aside, the only remaining threat to Howard Dean’s march to the nomination is Wesley Clark.
Ironically, Howard Dean himself has invalidated the argument that it’s too late for a tenth candidate to jump into the race. His surge in support has made the race so lopsided that all the other campaigns are either on life support or rolling merrily toward defeat in January. The Kerry, Lieberman, Edwards and Graham campaigns are now low-hanging fruit for the Clark campaign to pick.
We’ve all heard the repetitive stories about how a Clark candidacy would hurt each candidate. But I’m willing to take that assessment a step further: The quickness with which the Wesley Clark campaign materializes and gains legitimacy will stun the other candidates and suck up all remaining oxygen from the race. Several big-name candidates will not make it to Iowa, much less Super Tuesday, instead casting their lot with Wesley Clark and against Howard Dean.
The sequence of events, at this point, is quite predictable. Not only are fence-sitting donors and “neutral” politicos still waiting to commit to a candidate, but the perturbed grassroots supporters of several candidates are also likely to defect to a viable candidate.
With a Clinton-Soros money machine and a swooning press on his side, Clark’s Iowa and New Hampshire supporters will arrive not from the grassroots, but from the other campaigns. Kerry’s candidacy is over the day Clark announces, plain and simple. His supporters know that there is no plausible way the man can win. John Edwards, mired in single digits after a barrage of television ads, will drop out and run for reelection to the senate. Joe Lieberman, for all his recent bomb-throwing, will become another Bob Graham, a man with good national security creds but little reason to continue wasting his time campaigning for the top spot.
Despite the fact that Dean has been working like hell to garner as many endorsements as possible (and therefore sustain the growing perception that his candidacy is inevitable), Dean will spin his failure to gain party support by casting Clark as The Establishment Candidate.
Dean’s backers will spread memes that Clark isn’t garnering support on the merits, but rather, out of some backroom conspiracy with Lieberman and the rest of the DLC Mafia. Furthermore, they will point to Clark’s initial lack of specific policies as evidence that he is the George W. Bush to their John McCain.
It is closer to the truth, though, to view Clark as playing R.F.K. to Dean’s Eugene McCarthy. We never got to see that contest through to the end. This one promises to be just as surprising.