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Wesley Clark: Friend Of Bill

CBS News Reporter Bonney Kapp is traveling with the Clark campaign.



The Clark campaign has been making stops in states across the country, from North Dakota to Texas, all the while making sure to schedule at least one public event in New Hampshire each day. All the commuting means the candidate and his staff have been spending many hours in the air with the press. And while his staff would like the general to take some time to rest and read up on current issues, there has been time for Clark to sit with reporters.

Some of these conversations were marked "off the record." When told he would spend time in the back of the plane with the traveling press corps, Clark joked, "It's just so much fun. How could you not come back there and shoot the breeze? As long as it's, uh … carefully controlled." Clark was referring to an early campaign gaffe when his answer to a New York Times reporter on the Iraq war resolution caused rivals to question his stance.

A lot of ground was covered during the four-hour flight to Dallas on Monday afternoon. From the serious ("George W. Bush hasn't done what he needed to do to keep us safe.") to the not-so serious ("From time to time I hear some of it," he said of the music of his high-profile endorser Madonna).

When Clark met with reporters individually in the front of the plane, campaign manager Eli Segal came to the back to answer questions from the assembled press corps. The focus quickly turned to former President Bill Clinton after Segal insinuated Clark would hold an event with Mr. Clinton over the weekend. When asked if Mr. Clinton would be in attendance, Segal coyly told the press, "If I were a betting man I wouldn't expect him." He later clarified his remarks by saying the event would be held "with many of the people who were engaged with both the campaign and the administration."

The Clinton connection has been a recurring theme in the Clark campaign. Former Arkansas Sen. David Pryor, who stumped for Mr. Clinton in 1992, has become a frequent guest of Clark's out on the trail. When Clark introduces Pryor to voters, it's clear why the former senator is so important to the campaign. "It's a repeat performance for Sen. Pryor because he was up here in 1992 when Bill Clinton was campaigning. And thank you, Senator, for coming back," Clark said last week through a Clinton-approving applause.

Segal, a longtime friend of the former president, did not dance around the topic of drawing parallels between his candidate and Mr. Clinton. "Many people from the Clinton administration believe Wes Clark is the best representation of the views, the substance, and the style of President Clinton," Segal said in no uncertain terms.

The Clinton strategy is also apparent in Clark's town hall-style forums. The former general often quotes the former president on issues from abortion to trade. "I agree with what Bill Clinton said - abortion should be legal, safe and rare," Clark said at a recent New Hampshire event, to cite one example.

Last week, Clark went so far as to credit his former commander in chief for his switch from Independent to Democrat. Clark told a roomful of Keene, N.H., voters, "He's a man who has the intelligence, charisma, leadership, experience and intellect to really make a difference in this country. I voted Democratic and I've stayed Democratic since then."

The similarities between the two men are noteworthy. It's more than policy. They both hail from Little Rock, Ark., and both attended Oxford as Rhodes scholars. Even the Manchester hotel where Clark is staying through the N.H. primary is the same hotel where the Clinton camp stayed in 1992. A little renovation and the former Days Inn is now the Sheraton Four Points, and according to the campaign, it might as well be fate.

Of the coincidence, former Clinton aide and current Clark senior strategist Chris Lehane said, "I think it's a serendipitous, confluence of events in terms of where we're staying. But I certainly can feel that this hotel has at least one more win in it."

Despite all the similarities, campaign chairman Segal maintains the former president isn't likely to throw his support to any candidate before a Democratic nominee is selected. And even though the Clark campaign maintains "regular" contact with Mr. Clinton, Segal guesses the other candidates also seek his advice. "He's made it clear he talks to all of them. These are his friends; they've worked with him over time. I'd assume they're in touch with him, too," Segal said.

But the Clark campaign is unabashed in its fondness of Bill Clinton and is running on many of the former president's policies, betting that voters long for a return to the Clinton era. "They liked the job he did; they liked the 22 million jobs, they liked the peace, they liked the prosperity," said Lehane. "And any association with that type of peace, that type of prosperity is something that we embrace."

And the campaign hopes voters will in turn embrace Clark during the primaries. "I think Clinton is a huge asset. He's sort of [the Democrats'] leading personality and I'm glad to see they have one of Clinton's people up here from Arkansas," said New Hampshire voter Steve Lindsey.

But it remains to be seen how the association will help or hurt Clark if he were to secure the nomination. Kathy Borden of Spofford, N.H., pointed out that not everybody is a Clinton fan. "I think it's good for me because I like Bill Clinton, but I don't think it gets positive results from other people since a lot of people have very negative views of Clinton."

It's a gamble Clark will continue to take. The campaign just announced in a press release that "high-profile Clinton officials roll into New Hampshire" this weekend.

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