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General Clark On The Griddle

By CBSNew.com's Chief Political Writer David Paul Kuhn

The former Army Four-Star General who was once NATO Supreme Commander, Wesley Clark, flips a good flapjack.

Forget kissing babies. The mainstay of campaigns in maple syrup country comes over the griddle. Call it, pancake politics. On Saturday morning, Clark went to a volunteer fire station in the town of Auburn, New Hampshire, for at least his tenth pancake breakfast since January, according to his campaign. In the post-Iowa era, Clark has taken to the pancake to keep his campaign from going flat.

Standing beside his wife, Gert, the hopeful first couple flipped the flapjacks for a gaggle of press cameras and photographers. One problem -- not a single voter could see.

The Clark campaign says the pancake push is genuine. "He likes getting up early in the morning, it's his favorite breakfast food," Gert said of her husband, as she carefully turned them over one-by-one, clearly not so pancake savvy. "He always did the pancakes in our house," Gert giggled about her war-hero husband. "He uses Aunt Jemima."

Truth be told, the general doesn't do pancakes as enthusiastically as his competitor, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who tossed his high with a smile in the Hawkeye State. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry has flipped elephant shaped hotcakes (representing the Republican Party's mascot). Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich tossed a few in Iowa as well.

But North Carolina Sen. John Edwards doesn't do pancakes. "I'm not sure why, I guess our preferences are the town hall and the rally type format," spokesperson Kim Ruby said, who was heavily involved in his campaign in Iowa.

At the rural Auburn firehouse, crammed with more than 200 people, Clark was serious too.

"My first day in office I will sign an executive order that allows Americans to buy their prescription drugs in Canada," he yelled to cheers, standing on a box beside the town ambulance. He called the war in Iraq "deceptive" and said that although he originally joined a Baptist church because of the "pretty stained glass windows," he believes that one should practice what they preach. Speaking of family values and religion to this small town crowd (excluding the New Yorkers and Bostonians present) Clark said, "If you are more fortunate you should reach out to those who are less fortunate. That's our party. I think we are the party that acts on faith."

But the pancake issue remains. Why always pancakes? After speaking, I asked the hard hitting question of the general but he was too busy greeting voters. Questioning him again, as to whether it was really his favorite food, he replied, "Oh yes it is. Yes it is," he smirked.

And why not? While the Russians' have their blinis, the Hungarians' their palacsintas, and the French their crepes (which no presidential hopeful would be caught dead eating) pancakes are as American as apple pie. More American, says Auburn Volunteer Fireman Pete Boudreau, 38. "It's nice that he comes out to the small towns and everyone loves pancakes," Boudreau continued.

It's true. After unscientifically polling more than a dozen New Hampshire voters, not a one said they disliked pancakes. All saw them as very American, folksy, reminiscent of "hearth and home," as one book editor put it. You would never see an advertisement by a Republican political action group calling Dean a latté drinking, Volvo driving, pancake eating liberal.

But sadly, even though our politicians' love the Americana of wooing voters over a good pancake breakfast, Old Europe looks to have outdone us. German Ralf Laue holds the 1997 Guinness World Record after tossing 416 flapjacks in two minutes. Clark, well the general fell short of that, averaging about six flips in that same period of time.

Clark's campaign sees pancake breakfasts as a good way to rally voters early in the day and maybe grab a few from the other candidates' events. It worked with one undecided voter, but he can't participate in Tuesday's primary.

"Kerry's event this morning was billed as a pancake breakfast two days ago but I saw on the web that it had changed, so I called his campaign and they said, 'because of logistical reasons it was impossible to serve pancakes,' so we came here instead," a laughing Robert Feldstein explained.

The 29-year old New York City resident drove up with seven friends for a three-day tour of the candidates for both the "substance and the spectacle" of the primary. "So I called Clark's office to confirm his breakfast and they said, 'if the general plans to have pancakes we'll have pancakes.' So he got my stomach. I'm still not sure yet if he'll get my vote."

The seven New Yorkers, who said it concerned them that chocolate-covered gummy bears were Clark's favorite food, planned to spend the rest of the day, "seeing Kerry play hockey, go to a Kucinich house party, a Lieberman town hall meeting, and see Edward's bowl," Feldstein's friend, Charlotte Kaiser, said. "I don't think most of these people would wake up so early if not for the pancakes. I probably would not."

On the campaign trail, or rather tundra during this frozen New Hampshire January, the common time to begin pancake breakfasts seems to be 8:30 a.m. Actor Ted Danson had no problem waking up this early, even though Mary Steenburgen and he had just flown in from California to stump for Clark.

When asked what Danson thought of the pancakes, he said while dodging a flurry of autograph seekers, "I haven't had them yet, I guess it depends on whether they're good." I informed him that the general's wife Gert called them "a bit raw" in the middle and Danson, eyebrows raised, replied, "Oh dear. Maybe I'll pass."

At least they weren't too flat.

By David Paul Kuhn >

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