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Orange County | Dana Parsons

Charging Up the Hill With Gen. Clark

September 24, 2003|Dana Parsons

When I reached Stuart O'Neill on his cell phone Wednesday, he was on horseback at Nellie Gail Ranch and about to start a fairly steep climb.

As political metaphors go, that's as good as any for the fledgling activist from Rancho Santa Margarita who's hitched himself to retired Gen. Wesley Clark's late-blooming presidential campaign.

And yet, in the early going, Clark is not just another candidate with a late start and no shot. To the contrary, Clark, the former NATO commander and head of the Kosovo operation in 1999, has burst to the front in one poll as the Democratic front-runner.

And that makes O'Neill's task as the Orange County coordinator for the Clark campaign something more than just a good way to while away the autumn in Southern California.

In short, his guy could win.

If that makes O'Neill nervous, he isn't saying. Nor is he reluctant to say that more seasoned political pros may supplant him down the line if the Clark candidacy stays hot.

But so far, O'Neill says, everything is cool. "It's exhilarating, to say the least, to be part of something that's growing this fast."

In a profession known for hyperbole and manufactured enthusiasm, O'Neill isn't exaggerating. The first Clark meeting in Orange County drew 10 people in June at a Santa Ana eatery. A meeting last week attracted 64, O'Neill says. The next is Thursday night at the Doubletree Hotel Irvine Spectrum.

"Either you perceive it or you don't," O'Neill says of the Clark appeal. "He's a package I've never seen before. He's a candidate who's intellectually gifted, who's curious about the world and will exclude no viewpoint. He's inclusive rather than exclusive and had three majors [during his studies at Oxford], one of which is philosophy. He can talk on any subject with anybody. He has served in major positions of power. His NATO command has a palace much larger than the White House, with many more servants. He's not running to acquire a lot of the things that other people who are running do it to acquire."

O'Neill, 54, is in the real estate business and hasn't been involved in politics, "mostly because I seldom if ever found a candidate to inspire me. This man inspires me."

With no formal headquarters, the local Clark group is still finding its way and signing up volunteers. Part of its job, O'Neill says, will be to tell voters in early 2004 primary states that "people in conservative Orange County, California, support Clark's candidacy."

Of course, there are a lot of question marks about Clark. He's never run for office, for one. The sheen may wear off after voters learn more about him.

But O'Neill says he has no doubt that Clark will demonstrate staying power in the rough-and-tumble world of presidential politics. People first will be fascinated by him, then curious, then informed, he says. Their support will follow.

A nice formula. I ask O'Neill why he's so confident about Clark. "Because people want leaders of substance and honor. That's our most American of values."

No one disputes that a military man who turns to politics presents formidable possibilities. Inevitably, O'Neill says, that potential will produce attacks from across the political spectrum. He's right. But only then will we find out if Clark has the right stuff.

"The reason he'll sustain [his popularity] is that he's not [just] image," O'Neill says. "He has an image, but he's a man of complete substance.... One of the things that's so unusual and that's going to be challenging is that he understands every issue and has multilayers of understanding, and he communicates like that. He doesn't have a six-second sound bite that explains his position on the Middle East or any other issue."

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821, at dana.parsons@latimes.com or at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626.

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