That was a remarkably precipitous plummet in New Hampshire by Wesley Clark. Fell like a rock is what he did. Eight days out he was a surging second in the high-20s, bearing down hard on Howard Dean. He finished not quite in the teens, closer to fifth than second.
So, is our local general finished? Not quite and not yet. You can't find much good in his performance so far as a presidential candidate. He remains a good idea poorly executed. But now begins the week of weeks when Clark's strategy finally must work. He needs two or three state triumphs out of the seven primaries or caucuses next Tuesday. Without them, he's done.
He got clobbered in New Hampshire by three things.
One was that he had positioned himself as the post-Iowa alternative to Dean, but Iowa anointed two other alternatives to Dean, John Kerry and John Edwards, and propelled them with momentum. Clark came to the race late as the Southerner with military credentials. But Iowa happened to resurrect a different war hero and a different Southerner.
The second was that Clark is a political novice beset by an off-putting brashness and confidence. He flat-out declared to a newspaper interviewer that there'd be no terrorist attack if he became president. He crowed that he was a general and Kerry a lieutenant, offending with arrogance. He misspoke and wound up to the left of Planned Parenthood on a woman's right to choose abortion, saying life began whenever the woman decided to have the baby - period.
Finally, the general's campaign wasn't very smart. With Democrats uncommonly attuned to electability this year because of their particular abhorrence of George W. Bush, Clark's running around New Hampshire with George McGovern and filmmaker Michael Moore, and declining to repudiate Moore's branding of Bush as a deserter, probably wasn't the savvy move.
Now, as for that aforementioned strategy: It was to skip Iowa and avoid that state's war of attrition, raise money, run hard against Dean in New Hampshire and have plenty of resources for a big push in a few potentially friendly states holding primaries or caucuses the week after New Hampshire.
Clark had calculated in skipping Iowa that Dean would win there, bruising Kerry, Edwards and Dick Gephardt and lending currency to the notion in New Hampshire that the general was the logical and credible depository of anti-Dean sentiment.
The strategy has failed thoroughly so far, excepting the fund-raising part, which has gone well.
Now Clark clings only to the third element of a three-part strategy - the potentially friendly states next Tuesday. Clark's targets are South Carolina, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona. That's where you'll find him over the next seven days.
He may be in trouble in South Carolina, with native son John Edwards leading there. So, if Clark is to have firewalls, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona must provide them.
He'll not pay much attention to Missouri. He'll stick to a plan developed when Missouri was not in play, conceded to favorite son Dick Gephardt. Clark can hope for a split decision next week that sets the pundits to talking about a marathon for delegates rather than a sweep by Kerry. The best kind of split for Clark would be something like this: Edwards wins South Carolina; Kerry wins Missouri and North Dakota; maybe Dean wins Delaware; and Clark wins Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico.
That best case scenario would fortify Clark as the only candidate other than the front-running Kerry to have won more than one state and to have won outside his home region.
It's easier to see how he survives next week to fight on than how he wins the nomination. But survival is the very point. As Democratic pollster Doug Schoen explained it the other day, the tickets to victory are momentum from last week and money for advertising next week. It may not be the most pristine way to select a major presidential nominee, but it seems to work.