WASHINGTON – Sources in and close to retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark’s (search) presidential campaign deny that infighting between grassroots organizers and the so-called "Clintonistas" on the staff has caused their candidate to stumble.
Instead, they dismiss such talk as hype from Republican operatives.
"We have the best and the brightest, and some of them just happen to have worked for the past Clinton administrations and campaigns. I think the fact we have them working here really bodes well for us," said Maya Israel, associate director of communications, whose roots are in the "Draft Clark" Internet movement credited with convincing Clark to run for office.
As for recent reports that the campaign has suffered from public missteps and private discord, Israel called the trials typical growing pains of any fledging campaign operation.
“We started quick and we started late,” Israel told Foxnews.com. “I think if there were any sort of rockiness, it was due to the fact that we had to move into a new place and grow and get things smoothed out.”
Clark, who joined the race on Sept. 17 after months of prodding and circumspection, remained at the top of several national polls in the last week. But his numbers ranked near the bottom of polls in New Hampshire and Iowa, states holding the first primary and caucus respectively in the 2004 campaign season.
Since his entry into the contest for the Democratic nomination, Clark has been criticized for a number of blunders on the campaign trail, including not being clear on his stand on the war in Iraq and not effectively explaining his past support for Republicans.
To make matters worse, Clark interim campaign manager, Donnie Fowler (search), who also had risen from the Internet movement, resigned on Oct. 7. Reports at the time said Fowler was unhappy that former Clinton supporters on the general's staff were focusing the campaign's message on Washington while Clark's grassroots backers were being ignored as they lobbied to put more attention on battleground states.
Fowler has not commented on his departure since he left, and the campaign has offered nothing but positive spin on the situation. Since the fallout with Fowler, key posts have gone to several Clintonistas — refugees from past Clinton and Gore campaigns and former high-level staff members of the previous Democratic administration.
Among those with high name recognition are Eli Segal (search), chairman and CEO of the campaign. Segal served as an assistant to President Clinton from 1993 through 1996. Mickey Kantor (search), former secretary of commerce and national chair for the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1992, is now chairing the Clark campaign's steering committee.
Former Ambassador Richard Sklar (search), who served as Clinton’s special representative in Bosnia for the Dayton Peace Accords (search), is the campaign's chief operating officer while Matt Bennett, a White House deputy assistant from 1997 to 2001, is now the campaign's communications director.
Others linked to Clark’s campaign in advisory roles include former Clinton advisers Mark Fabiani, Bruce Lindsey, Ron Klain and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill.
Still, Israel contends that the grassroots movement has a strong presence at the table.
"We were assured — and it has been shown to us — that the grassroots movement would still be driving forces in the campaign," she said. "We all got jobs, and we are in key positions."
Meanwhile, theories abound as to why the former Clinton-Gore types are rallying around Clark at all. While Clark served as the supreme NATO commander under Clinton’s watch in Bosnia, he also resigned his post after butting heads with administration officials.
Nevertheless, Clinton has reportedly encouraged his friends to support Clark, without making a formal endorsement himself.
"The fact is that many Clinton folks had not signed up with any of the other campaigns. And then when an unknown jumps into the race, they gravitate towards him — that should raise eyebrows," said Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway. “I sniff a Clinton here, and I think it’s more causation than coincidence."
Some say the Clintons — always behind the scenes in high-stakes Democratic Party politics — want to spoil the chances of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, now the front-runner in New Hampshire and Iowa, who some say won't ultimately be able to beat Republican President George W. Bush in next year's general election.
Others have suggested that Clark is being used by the Clinton base as a "stalking horse" for a Hillary Clinton run in 2008, or even a placeholder for her in case she wishes to jump in late in the game in 2004.
"You have to figure there is a hidden agenda," said Bill Whalen, a political analyst for the Hoover Institute at Stanford University in California. "[The Clintons] do not have a close relationship with Clark. For all of them to be supporting him as the man to save the Democratic Party just doesn’t make sense. There’s something rotten in the state of Arkansas.”
Democratic strategist Vic Kamber balks at the suggestion.
"I think it might just be that several people who didn’t find what they wanted in the other candidates reached out to work on the Clark campaign. I don’t think there is anything sinister or diabolical about it."
If anything, Kamber added, "These are talented people and they bring wisdom to the table."
Israel said most of the talk about the Clinton connection has been "generated by conspiracy theorists or [Republican National Committee] staffers to put it all in a negative light.”
Others have suggested that critics are giving the Clintons too much credit and their mythological influence just doesn’t exist.
Meanwhile, Simon Rosenberg, who worked for several months in Little Rock in 1992 and is now the president and founder of the New Democrat Network (search), dismissed talk of the campaign's infighting, and instead praised the efforts of both new- and old-school operatives.
“I think Clark has assembled a very talented group of people," he said. "They are in the very early stages of a campaign, and I think because of the late start, will be a little wobbly. But that doesn’t mean the man is not going to win."