Wesley Clark did a little retail politicking on Thursday – literally. He bagged groceries at Sully's Superette in Goffstown, N.H., just hours before the last, crucial debate before next week's Democratic primary.
The former Supreme Commander of NATO asked customers if they preferred paper or plastic. He handed out campaign signs. He even appeared to make a few sales: at least a few customers left Sully's saying they would vote for Clark.
But polls suggest he'll need a few more.
A Boston Herald survey of 501 voters published Thursday, with a margin of error of 4.4 percent, found Clark in third place with 16 percent behind John Kerry's 31 percent and Howard Dean's 21 percent. A WBZ/Boston Globe poll of 400 voters found identical results. In both polls, Clark's share had fallen from earlier surveys.
Still, Clark campaign aides are preaching confidence.
"We're really excited. We feel like things are really taking hold here in New Hampshire," said communications director Matt Bennett. "He's done a fantastic job as a candidate and our campaign is really humming."
But the campaign has also been playing a game of catch-up. Clark got his campaign up and running late in the summer, well after the other major candidates. That's left little time or the sort of meet-and-greet politics Clark practiced at Sully's.
"The more people know about Wes Clark the more they like him," Bennett said. "Our challenge is to find the time to tell people about Gen. Clark as voters start to pay more and more attention to the primary as it gets closer."
Clark's campaign has always been a "retail" candidacy of sorts. A Web-based "Draft Clark" movement ostensibly convinced him to enter the race.
But unlike Sully's proprietors, Clark isn't selling Yancey S. Fancey Country Store Cheese ($5.79 a pound) or 'Nilla Wafers (an 11-ounce box for $3.39). Instead, what he wants voters to buy is the argument that he's the man with the resume – Rhodes scholar, wounded combat vet, war commander – to beat President Bush.
Clark decided to skip the Iowa caucus to concentrate on New Hampshire. For weeks, he was gaining on Dean in the polls here and looked poised to be the main challenger when Dean rode in fresh from victory in Iowa.
That script changed when John Kerry won instead in Iowa. Now, according to the most recent New Hampshire polls, rather than being the man to beat Dean, Clark may leave the state merely as the man who beat Edwards.
Clark aides are tamping down expectations. Bennett says the campaign expects the New Englanders, Kerry and Dean, to do well on their "home turf." Despite Clark's skipping Iowa to concentrate on New Hampshire, his campaign says the real fight will begin when the primaries move to the South, the Southwest and the Northwest. The race is "wide open," Bennett says.
"Electability is not about who wins in New Hampshire. Electability is about who can beat George Bush," Bennett says. With his national security experience and tax plan, Clark can, Bennett says.
The retired general's military acumen was not on display in the checkout lane. But the general took his retail politicking seriously.
"Gen. Clark reporting as ordered, sir," he chirped, as he took up his post at the end of the checkout lane. Asked if his new job at Sully's, which he held for about 15 minutes, was a tough transition from being a four-star general, the sweater-clad Clark replied. "No ma'am, we're here to serve."
Besides bagging, Clark patted backs, asked a man where he'd served in the military and held conversations with some shoppers in a low voice that reporters could not hear. For some, the sales pitch worked.
"He wasn't even in the running for my vote and I think he just got it," said Jennifer Brown. A small-business owner, she lacks health insurance; her domestic partner has insurance, but Brown cannot join her plan.
"She has full benefits in a large company and I don't count in her company, and that's not right," Brown said. Clark impressed her when he said "he's going to get health insurance on all ends, race, color, creed or sexual orientation."
John Gray, a retiree whose red and white Clark sticker matched his New England Patriots sweatshirt, said Clark was sensitive to his worries about the minimum wage.
At present, Gray said, families around Goffstown making minimum wage may bring home only $120 a week. "You can't live on that," Gray said.
But he added that he still wasn't decided on voting for Clark. "I love John Kerry," he said.
Sully's, a family business for 67 years, is a ritual stop for candidates hoping to practice retail politics. Joe Lieberman, who like Clark skipped Iowa to concentrate on New Hampshire, visited one of the two Sully's stores earlier this year.
But Sully's also reflects some of the "real people" problems that candidates claim to learn about at these campaign stops, and not just because Joe Six-Pack, that mythical average voter, can buy a six-pack of cold Buds for just $4.69. Sully's also bears scars from the recession.
The Sully's that Lieberman visited, in Manchester, closed in December because construction was blocking customer access and competition from chain stores was getting stiff. Thirty-five people lost their jobs.
"Not an easy decision," said John Denoncourt, the third-generation owner.
The remaining Sully's store did plenty of business Thursday. Too much, some said.
"This is a joke. This is a zoo," said Laurie Hambilton, 43, who works for a nonprofit. "I wanted to say hi to General Clark. But there's 85 people standing there and not one of them is from here"
"We live here and we can't park at our grocery store because of the media," she said.
Even when a general's bagging, there are still unsatisfied customers.
By Jarrett Murphy
By Jarrett Murphy