Steady practice seems to have honed General Clark's performance on the trail, which in the early days suffered from his tendency to digress into multiple subjects.
At an early December town-hall-style meeting in Nashua, N.H., General Clark's response to one question ran nearly 10 minutes. This week, his stump speech was more focused and his answers to questions more to the point. Lately, he has also avoided the emotional outbursts that cropped up early in his campaign when asked about subjects like Iraq or why some former generals seemed to dislike him.
The Clark campaign points to what it calls tangible reasons for its growing confidence. It raised about $11 million in the fourth quarter, more than any campaign other than Dr. Dean's.
In polls in early primary states like New Hampshire, General Clark is closing in on Senator John Kerry, who is running second but is slipping. In South Carolina and Arizona, General Clark is also moving up, and in some states the numbers indicate he is neck-and-neck with Dr. Dean. It is in those Southern states where his campaign is confident that General Clark's military experience will attract independent voters who supported Bill Clinton in the 1990's but who might have defected to George W. Bush in 2000.