|WASHINGTON - Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark is hoping that ties with former President Bill Clinton will help more than hurt any campaign he launches for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Clark is expected to announce his political intentions later this week, possibly in connection with a speech at the University of Iowa on Friday. Iowa's Democratic caucuses on Jan. 19 are the first in a series of party contests across the nation that will pick the Democratic presidential nominee.
"Bill Clinton was a tremendous leader," Clark said in an interview with Hearst Newspapers. "He had tremendous charisma, authority and conviction. He was a force in shaping opinion around the world."
Clark, 58, a former NATO commander, said he talks with Clinton "occasionally," adding that the former president bears "a lot of responsibilities as the last elected president from this party."
Clinton has spoken favorably of Clark as well, a fellow Arkansan and Rhodes scholar who pursued a 33-year military career after graduating first in his class from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
Clinton praised Clark as a Democratic Party star second only to his wife, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, at the couple's backyard barbecue for major campaign donors recently in Chappaqua, N.Y., according to news accounts.
Clark's open embrace of Clinton contrasts with steps taken by Al Gore in his 2000 presidential campaign to distance himself from Clinton, who had been impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate for lying under oath about a sexual dalliance with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Clark may benefit as well from several prominent Clinton allies in Arkansas who have expressed their support. These ranks include former White House lawyer Bruce Lindsey and Skip Rutherford, president of the William J. Clinton Foundation, which is helping to underwrite Clinton's riverfront presidential library in Little Rock, Ark.
The latest Gallup Poll released Friday showed Clark positioned squarely in the middle of what would become a 10-candidate field, if he enters the race. Clark had the support of 10 percent of 407 Democratic registered voters surveyed nationwide even though he remains an unannounced candidate. The poll showed Clark trailing Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, a Democrat from Missouri, with 16 percent; former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean with 14 percent; Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, with 13 percent; and Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, with 12 percent.
The last general to become president was Dwight D. Eisenhower, former allied commander in Europe in World War II, who was drafted by the Republicans in 1952. Eisenhower went on to capture the White House and win re-election in 1956.
Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe, a longtime ally of Clinton who served as the president's premier fund-raiser, said it was not too late for Clark to enter the race. When he ran in 1992, Clinton didn't join the Democratic field until Oct. 3, 1991 - the equivalent of early next month in the 2004 election calendar.
"If he gets in, we would welcome him," McAuliffe said.