"We have to win today, I know," Wesley Clark admitted to reporters while visiting his Oklahoma City campaign headquarters on Primary Day.
Unlike last month's New Hampshire primary, where staffers hinted Clark would place somewhere in the top four, the campaign faced a do-or-die test on February 3. If unsuccessful in all of the seven states holding primaries or caucuses Tuesday, Clark would likely suffer a serious loss of momentum and donations, thus jeopardizing his candidacy.
From senior staffers to volunteers to the candidate himself, the campaign appeared confident Clark would have a victory party on Tuesday. While one staffer went so far as to predict wins in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona, a less forthcoming Clark said, "I'm not going to name states, but I'll win."
That was a tall order that took Clark out to Oklahoma City's shops and restaurants Tuesday morning to meet voters and ask for their support. It's hard to gauge if the last-minute retail politicking won votes, but the candidate ran into many fans, as well as those who just politely shook his hand.
When approached by Clark at an area coffee shop, one man smiled and said he had already voted. What he didn't reveal to Clark was that his vote went to John Edwards. "If I voted for him, I would have told him," the man informed reporters after Clark moved on.
The rest of the afternoon was just as awkward, if not more so for Clark. When he delivered pizza to the OKC Clark '04 headquarters, several volunteers making reminder calls to voters expressed frustration that most of those on the list were not at home. And at least one of the voters on the other end of the line declined an invitation to speak directly with the retired general, who was working the phones in front of a horde of television news crews.
Outside the headquarters, Wesley Clark Jr. was making news of his own with his father's traveling press corps. Without a campaign official hovering nearby, a candid Wes Jr. made brazen statements on the media's coverage of his father to a news hungry bunch used to listening to an even-keeled candidate Clark.
"What did we get on the news for this weekend? A speeding ticket in Oklahoma," Clark Jr. said, referring to a recent incident when all three cars in the campaign motorcade received $150 tickets. "It's like, you've gotta be [expletive] kidding me, come on. It's like you gotta cover what the man says and what he stands for, and no one's done that. It's a hell of a way to pick a president," he said with disdain.
At General Clark's next campaign stop at a soul food restaurant, the majority of the traveling press stayed outside, listening to tapes and furiously jotting down notes. Ironically, the big scoop was Wes Jr.'s outburst at the media's failure to cover his father's message – not his father's message.
When the general returned to the hotel to do radio interviews after an already long morning, exit polls indicated there was a statistical dead heat between Clark, Kerry and Edwards for the top spot in Oklahoma, the state in which Clark stood the best chance. Alone with our blackberries and each other, the press corps began to wonder: If he didn't pull a victory out of his hat, would this be the end of the campaign?
As polls in Oklahoma closed at 7 p.m., the press corps hovered around the Renaissance Hotel's Falling Water Grille, where General and Mrs. Clark, Wes Jr., campaign chairman Eli Segal and five senior staffers sat for dinner. It felt a little like walking into the Last Supper when we were invited to cover a few minutes of the meal. When asked what he was doing after dinner, Clark changed the tone by responding, "Having dessert."
Over a salad and in a rather blasé manner, he addressed his fate in the too-close-to-call results. "I mean, this could be over, this could be a long way from over, and you know it could be impacted tomorrow by something we don't know about, and you know there's so many factors in this."
The group finished their meal sans cameras and awaited results. When the campaign determined it was safe to declare victory, staffers exchanged high-fives before walking across the street to the victory party. Some 200 supporters gathered at 7 p.m. to hear Clark's victory speech, chanting "U Wes A," as they waited for Clark, who finally arrived some four hours later.
"The results are in; we have won," Clark began. "Oklahoma is OK by me. And I'll tell you what, as an old soldier from Arkansas, I couldn't be prouder for your support in this first election that I've ever won."
Clark thanked staff and supporters and highlighted his stump speech before leaving the stage, saying, "I leave Oklahoma more full of hope and even more committed."
The campaign believes the win is more than a stay of execution for Clark, who will embark on a two-day tour of Tennessee on Wednesday. Senior strategist Chris Lehane told reporters last night's victory, as slight as it was, has made this a race with "three candidates who've actually won somewhere and competed across the board."
Lehane, a former Clinton staffer, not so subtly noted, "It reminds me of the '92 campaign. Bill Clinton won three of the first 14 primaries or caucuses. Many of those Clinton chose not to compete in." Clark plans on focusing much of his resources on the Volunteer State for the upcoming Feb. 10 primary, which could be yet another do-or-die test for his campaign.