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Pledging to run a campaign based on "straight talk" and to hold President Bush's administration accountable for economic and foreign-policy missteps, retired Gen. Wesley Clark formally entered the race for the Democratic presidential nomination Wednesday.

The former NATO supreme allied commander kicked off his bid for the White House with a noontime rally at the James H. Penick Boys & Girls Club in Little Rock. He was accompanied by his wife, Gert; son, Wesley Jr.; and supporters carrying signs that read "The Wes Wing," "The General Election" and "Bush Can't Dodge This Draft."

Interrupted with chants of "We Want Clark" at several points during his 11-minute speech, Clark thanked the "hundreds of people" in the audience involved in efforts to draft him for a presidential bid.

"You took an inconceivable idea, and you've made it con- ceivable," Clark said. "But many things are possible today because we do live in historic times."

He urged his supporters in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and "everywhere across America: Get ready, we're moving out!"

Clark of Little Rock compared the present with the past in jabs at Bush on the economy, the war in Iraq and Americans' personal sense of security.

"For the first time since Herbert Hoover's presidency [1929-33 ], a president's economic policies have cost us more jobs than our economy has had the energy to create," Clark said. "For the first time since the 1960s and early '70s, more than 100,000 American troops are fighting abroad, and once again, at home Americans are concerned about their civil liberties.

"For the first time since the Cold War, many Americans no longer feel safe in their homes and workplaces.

"These are historic times. And we're going to run a campaign that's worthy of the historic times in which we live," he said.

Clark also pledged to seek support from independents and Republicans as well as Democrats and to ask "tough questions" to "hold this administration accountable."

"Why has America lost 2.7 million jobs? Why has America lost the prospect of a $5 trillion surplus and turned it into a $5 trillion deficit that deepens every day? Why has our country lost our sense of security and feels the shadow of fear? Why has America lost the respect of so many people around the world?

"That's the questions we're going to be asking, and one more — why are so many here in America hesitant to speak out and ask questions?"

The crowd responded with a few people at first, then most to Clark's rhetorical questions with the word "Bush!"

"We're going to ask those hard questions, my friends, and we're going to demand the answers," he said. "But we're going to do so not in destructive bickering or in personal attacks, but in the highest traditions of democratic dialogue."

He said "in a time of war" such questions will be asked and alternatives proposed "in the highest sense of patriotism."

Clark said "in the coming weeks" he will deliver a "major speech outlining my vision for the economy and my vision for our national security."

Details on his travel plans over the next few days weren't immediately available Wednesday from the Clark campaign.

Clark was introduced to the crowd of about 400 supporters by U.S. Rep. Marion Berry, D- Ark., and former U.S. Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark., who evoked the words of the late Gen. Douglas MacArthur, an Arkansas native, in touting Clark's political future.

In a 1951 speech to Congress, MacArthur said "old soldiers never die, they just fade away," Pryor recalled.

Of Clark, Pryor said, "Today, there's a great soldier who's coming before us to say that it is not quite the time for him to fade away, but to once again answer the call of duty."

Clark, 58, served in the Army for 34 years before retiring in June of 2000 as a four-star general.

From 1997-2000, he was supreme allied commander for NATO in Europe and commander in chief of the United States European Command. He commanded NATO forces during the 78-day air war against Yugoslavia in 1999 that forced then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw forces from Kosovo.

Clark was born in Chicago and grew up in Little Rock, where he graduated from Hall High School with honors in 1962.

As the "strongest nation in the world " and "leading economy in the world" and a nation that has a "military without peer," the United States "can do better, will do better and we will do it together," Clark said.

"This 21 st century is going to be our American century, just like the 20th century was," Clark said.

Several people in the crowd said they're excited about Clark's chances against President Bush in the November 2004 general election.

Ann Portis Burton of Osceola said she supports Clark because "he's a winner, and he's from Arkansas. and we did so good last time," referring to the 1993-2001 presidency of Bill Clinton, a Democrat who previously served for 12 years as governor of Arkansas.

George Hale of Burdette in Mississippi County said he supports Clark and went to Little Rock to hear the retired general kick off his campaign because Clark "has the best chance of defeating George Bush."

"I think the country's going in the wrong direction, and we need to turn it around, and [Clark] is the best person to do it," Hale said.

Hale said with nine Democratic candidates already in the race, it's still not too late for Clark to get in because Clinton didn't enter the race until October 1991.

Two national political analysts said that while Clark supporters assume, or hope, that the Clinton parallel applies in Clark's case, the 2004 race is much different from the one Clinton entered a dozen years ago.

Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report of Washington, D.C., an independent newsletter that tracks U.S. politics, said such a comparison is "absolutely absurd."

First, Clinton didn't face nine other candidates as Clark does, and second, the four candidates Clinton did face - former California Gov. Jerry Brown, former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas and Sens. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Tom Harkin of Iowa — were less impressive than this year's field, Cook said.

Also, in late 1991 there was a "political vacuum" because many prominent Democrats had decided to sit out the race because of the political popularity of then-President George H.W. Bush after the U.S. victory in the Persian Gulf War.

Given the increasing costs of political campaigns, "October 1991 translates to January of this year," Cook said.

Cook said Clark is definitely behind in fund raising and organization but it will take several weeks to gauge the potential of a Clark campaign.

"I think it freezes the race," Cook said. "People just sort of stop, and they kind of wait a little while and digest it. Maybe three or four weeks from now, we'll sort of see what impact. For right now, everything is on hold."

Cook said the biggest impact of Clark's entry isn't on his fellow Democrats, such as U.S. Sen. John Kerry, whose military record in Vietnam is one of his campaign's selling points. In reality, Kerry's war record isn't the main attraction for his supporters, but because he's the "establishment liberal candidate," Cook said.

"I think this is not good for President Bush," Cook said. "I have real doubts as to whether Gen. Clark can win the nomination, but for the first time there will be some Democrat with some credibility on defense issues critiquing the president's policies, and that hasn't happened.

"Since Sept. 11, [2001], there has been no Democratic spokesman with any credibility on defense saying really anything ugly about Bush's policies," Cook said.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, said he also thinks that the comparison between October 1991 and September 2003 is invalid.

Sabato said Clark "is more of a long shot than the media are suggesting." Clark has never run for elective office before, and it "matters enormously whether you've at least been elected sheriff before," Sabato said.

In presidential politics, Dwight D. Eisenhower "was the exception to this rule," Sabato said.

Some Clark supporters have suggested parallels to President Eisenhower, who commanded Allied forces in World War II and was NATO supreme allied commander before he was elected president as a Republican and served from 1953-61.

Sabato said this comparison is "laughable."

Clark "ran a war in Bosnia, which about 90 percent of Americans today, or then, could not find on a map," Sabato said. "Dwight Eisenhower was the supreme allied commander in World War II, the most significant war in all of human history."

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