While seven of the nine Democratic presidential candidates duked it out on a stage in Johnston, Iowa, on Sunday, candidate Wesley Clark did more than stay out of the fray: he stayed in New Hampshire. But before Clark hit the trail Sunday morning, he did get in an appearance on the network airwaves as a guest on NBC's "Meet the Press."
After flipping pancakes at an American Legion Post in the morning, Clark spent his afternoon at a "Women for Wes" event at a Manchester museum. Introduced by his wife, among other prominent women leaders, Clark wooed the mostly female crowd by speaking on issues like equal opportunity, paid maternity leave, abortion rights, and affirmative action.
Just before the debate was set to start, Clark responded to reporters' questions and then headed back to his hotel for three hours of down time. When CBS News asked if he was planning on watching the debate, Clark deadpanned, "I hadn't even thought about it. Is there a debate today?"
Upon reminder, Clark said he didn't have any plans to watch. "I'm on my own schedule, I'm doing preparation. We've got a big announcement we're going to be making tomorrow. I'm going to go back and do some of that. I've got a lot of phone calls; I have a lot of people to thank."
Campaign press secretary Bill Buck confirmed that Little Rock headquarters did monitor the Iowa debate "in case there was anything the campaign needed to respond to," but said that the focus was on Clark's tax reform speech Monday.
While Iowans got much of the attention in the national media on debate night, voters in Nashua, N.H.'s town hall got to hear Clark speak in person. Ken Dolkart listened to the debate on the radio before heading out to see Clark, and was not bothered by Clark's decision to forego the debate. "As a New Hampshire voter, I'd rather see him here than in Iowa," Dolkart said with a laugh before he went to shake the candidate's hand.
Others, however, were not so sure. "He absolutely should have been there. What did he do today? He came to Nashua at 7 o'clock at night?" said Roger Tilton, a Nashua voter. "I think it would have been much more bang for his buck to be on the stage with the rest of the candidates. If he really wants to win, he should have been there." Tilton plans on supporting John Kerry in the primary.
The Clark campaign is skipping Iowa altogether in hopes of having better luck in New Hampshire by having two weeks without most of the candidates campaigning next door. Buck insisted Clark's Iowa sacrifice will translate to success here in the Granite State.
"We are going to be heavily covered in the Nashua Telegraph, the Manchester Union Leader, the Concord Monitor, and the Boston Globe – papers that the good people of New Hampshire read on a daily basis," Buck said.
Although polls still show Howard Dean with a significant lead in New Hampshire, the Clark campaign believes there's momentum for change. "Our crowds are large and growing in New Hampshire. We've had a tremendous fourth fundraising quarter; our coverage is great," said Buck. "We're in New Hampshire taking care of business."