The First Train to Clark-ville

Lauderdale hosts a candidacy in its infancy

A couple of years from now, if there's a guy named Wesley Clark in the Oval Office, South Floridians will be able to look back to a fateful evening in September 2003 and say it all started -- at least the Broward County part of it -- at Shooters Waterfront Café in Fort Lauderdale. It was right there at a long table at the front of the bar last Monday that an eclectic group of 16 citizens, shouting over the Avril Lavigne and Michael McDonald records, decided to start a "Draft Clark" committee. Tailpipe was there trying to get his, er, finger on the pulse of the voting public.

Though the 'Pipe isn't taking sides yet in the Democratic Party beauty pageant, he did get a feeling of being present at the moment of creation that night. For this gathering of acolytes, it seemed as if Clark, the four-star general who once commanded NATO and orchestrated the war in Kosovo, had stretched out a long finger -- something like God famously reaching for Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel -- to give the spark of life to a campaign committee.

The "meetup," a web-driven method of getting people organized, gathered an almost-perfect microcosm of this swamp-ridden region's citizenry. There were youngsters and oldsters, whites and Latinos (though no blacks). They included a lawyer, a luggage manufacturer, a corporate executive, a student, a web consultant, a couple of self-described "envelope stuffers," and a retired 66-year-old medical technician/real estate agent/homemaker who's a long-time political junkie. This last would be Barbara Miller, the person who started Wesley's subtropical ball rolling.

Randall Cunningham's bejeweled choppers
Colby Katz
Randall Cunningham's bejeweled choppers

"He's so polished, so... clear," Miller says of Clark, who, Tailpipe's emissions sensors say, is expected to announce his candidacy as we go to press.

What drives Miller, a blond, broad-shouldered Philadelphia native with an easy smile, and the others at the meetup is a deep aversion to Dubya and a fear that the declared Democratic candidates just don't have the oomph to overcome our make-believe Top Gun. "There are a lot of people who are talking about voting for Bush just because he went over there [to the Middle East] with guns to show them who's who," said Jim Fletcher, the web consultant. "The only chance to combat that sort of thinking is with a four-star general who's got a degree in economics and a Purple Heart from being wounded in Vietnam. Unlike Bush, Clark has really served his country." Howard Dean? Good ideas, but he won't impress the flag-wavers or the "conservative Democrats." "He's peaking early," one participant says. John Kerry? A stiff. Dennis Kucinich? Ugh, a vegetarian.

Clark has been flitting around the edges of the Democratic Party nominating contest for about six months now. (He affiliated himself with the Democratic Party only two weeks ago.) He's got military credibility; he expressed doubts about Iraq right from the beginning. He got national play -- and earned a White House rebuke -- by criticizing the war effort on CNN. And he seems ready to take on the prez. A dream candidate, several people said at the meeting. But, then, what do they know? Only one or two of them has ever been seriously involved in a campaign before. (Luggage manufacturer Peter Levine acknowledged that he once ran a campaign for a candidate for county property appraiser; his guy got creamed.)

Miller, who bravely displays an "Impeach Bush" sticker on her car, says her only real connection to politics is that she has a friend who works for Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Boca Raton), though she remembers campaigning in a conservative Pennsylvania district for lackluster Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis back in 1988, when he was running against that other Bush. All in all, she told this tube, she'd just as soon be playing bridge ("I'm too old and too fat to be at Shooters"). But there's something cool and steady about this guy Clark, and she wants to get involved. "He doesn't get rattled," Miller says.

The meetup crowd is just itching to get started. "Shouldn't there be the beginnings of an organization here?" Levine says.

Then, like Mickey and Judy putting on a show in the old barn, they start parceling out tasks. One member will set up a committee website, another will find a meeting place ("We need someplace quiet," Levine says over a hyperactive Kelly Clarkson song). And others are going to talk up the organization. It takes a little more than an hour, and they're in business.

The smart money would say Clark doesn't have a chance, not in Broward County, not in the U.S.A. Campaign contributions are drying up, volunteers are committed to other candidates, and Clark has a reported campaign chest of only about $1 million. But one thing Tailpipe has learned: Never count out challengers, particularly when they're Rhodes scholars from Arkansas.

Miller isn't making any big predictions. "Let me make it very clear," she says, with a laugh that almost veers out of control. "What I feel has absolutely nothing to do with reality. But I'm heartened so many people showed up."

Tailpipe always likes to be the first to spot a trend, so when he spied Randall Cunningham at Thrifty car rental in Dania Beach recently, the 'Pipe hit the brakes fast. It was the smile. Not the million-dollar smile but, it turned out, the $3,500 one. That's the amount Cunningham spent to have a row of gems surgically implanted on his front teeth. They're small, circular jewels, the size of apple seeds, ranging in color from green to blue to red. When Cunningham talks, these multicolored rocks flash and sparkle like a disco ball.

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