CONCORD, N.H. – Democrat Wesley Clark (search) has largely cruised under the political radar despite some eyebrow-raising remarks that abortion should be legal to the moment of birth, the Sept. 11 attacks were preventable and lobbyists make America safer.
Far from the bickering candidates and media horde in Iowa (search), Clark has spent much of his time campaigning in New Hampshire (search) -- he decided to bypass the early caucuses -- and his comments haven't drawn the same attention as his presidential rivals.
As the race tightens in Iowa and New Hampshire, the words of the retired Army general are undergoing closer scrutiny and prompting criticism both from his foes and Republicans, who may fear the four-star more than Howard Dean in a general election contest against President Bush.
Democrats label Clark a closet Republican. Republicans call him irresponsible.
Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie traveled to Clark's home state of Arkansas Thursday and criticized all Bush's rivals but paid particular attention to Clark, whom he said has made "increasingly careless comments about the president."
Focusing on Clark's past and present comments on Iraq, the RNC released a transcript of his testimony in September 2002 to the House Armed Services Committee in which he called Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein a clear threat and said action could not be postponed indefinitely.
"The use of force must remain a U.S. option under active consideration," said Clark, who also expressed his support for the right of the United States to act preemptively and said he believed Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Campaigning this week, Clark said he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, arguing that Bush was so preoccupied with Saddam that he let down his guard on homeland security and called for a congressional probe into the war.
Mo Elleithee, a Clark spokesman in New Hampshire, said nothing in Clark's congressional testimony "is inconsistent with what he says now about the war."
But rival Sen. Joe Lieberman said the comments show "it is no longer credible for Wesley Clark to assert that he has always had only one position on the war -- being against it. His own testimony before Congress shows otherwise."
And Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he was present for Clark's testimony.
"How can he possibly say now he was always against the war?" Wilson said. "As far as I'm concerned, this whole matter raises some serious questions about Wes Clark's ability to tell the truth."
In Manchester, N.H., Thursday, Clark told reporters the RNC's attack on him showed his campaign was gaining traction. "It looks like they've finally figured out that I'm George Bush's greatest threat," he said, blaming White House political adviser Karl Rove for the RNC's action.
The latest tracking poll shows Clark drawing within 5 percentage points of Dean, who once held a commanding lead of 25 percentage points over his closest rival.
Clark's decision to skip Iowa has left him out of the main action in which Dean and Dick Gephardt have exchanged barbs.
"It's as if it is almost a military maneuver on his part, a flanking maneuver," said Fred Greenstein, a political science professor at Princeton University. "Not only did he not have to make his way through the maze of Iowa, but it allowed Dean to take all the flak."
But now that Clark is emerging as a formidable adversary, "everybody will dump on him," Greenstein said. At least one rival, Sen. John Kerry, is considering airing an ad that raises questions about Clark immediately after Iowa's Monday caucuses. Kerry has slipped into third place in New Hampshire polls, a victim of Clark's surge.
In an interview last week with the Manchester Union Leader, Clark said he opposed any restriction on abortion, even until the last day of a pregnancy. That drew criticism from anti-abortion activists and prompted the campaign to say later that Clark had not intended to get into a debate over the timing of an abortion.
Clark also suggested that the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks could have been prevented and told the Concord Monitor that if elected, they would not happen.
At a town-hall meeting in Hudson, N.H., Wednesday, Clark defended serving on corporate boards after retiring from the military in 2000 and registering as a lobbyist. "We were trying to make America safe. That's what lobbyists mostly do," Clark said.
Clark has tried to set the record straight on the Iraq war.
He now says he would not have voted for the October 2002 congressional resolution that authorized Bush to launch military strikes against Iraq -- even though he indicated support on several occasions, including during a 2002 visit to New Hampshire.
"I answered the question as best I could at the time, and I bobbled the question," he told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "Even Rhodes scholars make mistakes."
Dean has complained that Clark voted for Republican Presidents Nixon and Reagan -- assertions Clark does not deny. But Clark also has said he voted for Democrats Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
The Dean campaign is distributing fliers in New Hampshire proclaiming, "Wesley Clark: Republican," and a man wearing a Reagan mask has shown up at Clark appearances to taunt the candidate.