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Democrats await Clark's decision
By Bill Straub, Scripps Howard News Service
He hasn't raised so much as a penny on his own behalf. His views on many issues remain widely unknown. Nine others already have spent months campaigning for the position he may - or may not - want. Until a few days ago, it wasn't even clear he was a Democrat.

Yet there is a buzz around retired four-star Army Gen. Wesley Clark, the former supreme commander at NATO credited with leading a successful military operation in Kosovo in 1999. He finds himself being touted as the great Democratic hope for unseating President Bush in November 2004.

Clark, 58, has done nothing to silence that hum.

The Arkansas native with the Rolls-Royce resume - which includes graduating first in his class at West Point and a master's degree from Oxford - said he intends to make a definitive statement about his intentions this month. With his wife, Gert, reportedly on board, it appears that the man who faced down Slobodan Milosevic is preparing to enter the political arena.

"When voters learn more about Gen. Clark, they will come out to support him," said Michael Frisby, president of the Walker Marchant Group, a Washington-based public-relations firm, who is involved in the movement to draft Clark for the Democratic nomination. "He has the charisma, stature and substance to be a winning candidate and a great leader for the nation."

Clark, Frisby said, "is the real thing. He is the kind of leader who can restore a sense of pride and confidence in the White House."

For his part, Clark has been involved in a series of personal appearances over the past few weeks, outlining his thoughts and speaking on issues ranging from the war on terrorism to affirmative action - and thus fueling speculation that he is ready to enter the race.

He is scheduled to speak at the Truman Day Dinner in Knoxville, Tenn., on Sept. 13 and at the University of Iowa - in the state that kicks off the national delegate-selection process - on Sept. 19.

Clark is providing red meat to Democratic audiences. Despite his military background, he has emerged as a harsh critic of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, asserting that the president should have worked harder to get United Nations involvement from the outset. Like the already declared Democratic candidates, he has expressed concern about the continued loss of jobs across the nation.

In a speech at the Oxonian Society in New York on Sept. 3, Clark said the key issue in the election will be whether warring Republicans and Democrats can "work through those disagreements to produce a higher-level product for the American people."

"I fought for the right of people to disagree," he said. "I fought for the right of people to protest. I fought for the right of people to question the president - and not just to question, you know, what did he eat today and how far did he run."

Clark's fighting background is what supporters say would make him the strongest of the Democratic contenders and the man most likely to depose Bush. Polls consistently show that voters back Democrats on domestic and economic issues but stand with Republicans on national security - a pretty hefty hole card in the wake of 9/11.

Clark's military background, analysts say, could theoretically neutralize that GOP advantage.

"I fought for the right of privacy," Clark told the Oxonian audience. "I fought for freedom from government intrusion of our personal lives. I fought for the belief that every American is a human being who is worthy of respect and who should be treated fairly and equally, regardless of race, religion, creed, sexual orientation or any other discriminating factor."

Another factor that has set Democratic hearts aflutter is the comparison between Clark and a party icon - former President Bill Clinton. Both hail from Arkansas and attended Oxford as Rhodes scholars. Both have keen intellects. Clark lost his father when he was a boy; Clinton's died before he was even born. Both met their future wives while attending prestigious East Coast schools. And the two are Democrats who entered public service.

But Clark also brings assets to the table that were beyond Clinton's grasp: a military background and a clean reputation.

A Little Rock native, Clark was the son of a Baptist mother and an Orthodox Jewish father, an attorney and Democratic Party activist. Clark's father died when he was 5 and he was raised a Baptist, unaware of his Jewish heritage until he was in his 20s.

Clark has a habit of finishing first in his class. He was No. 1 in the Hall High School graduating class of 1962 and the top student at West Point when he graduated in 1966. He earned the Oxford degree and commanded a mechanized infantry company in Vietnam, earning a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.

Clark spent 34 years in the military, climbing the ladder with appointments to the National War College, command of the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, and director of strategic plans and policy at the Pentagon.

He was serving as head of the Southern Command in Panama when he assumed NATO command in 1997. Clark left the Army in May 2000 and worked as an investment banker before forming his own business, Wesley K. Clark & Associates, a strategic advisory and consulting firm based in Little Rock. He and his wife have one adult son, Wesley, who is married and lives in Los Angeles.

A major question facing a Clark campaign is whether he waited too long to pull the switch - providing his prospective opponents with an insurmountable edge in fund-raising and organization. Supporters say no, citing polls showing that the candidates remain largely unknown within the general public.

Polls conducted by Zogby International for a group working to draft Clark show that 84.1 percent of likely Democratic primary voters say it is not too late for a new entrant to enter the race, and that Clark wins, 49.4 percent to 40.2 percent, in a "blind bio" matchup with Bush among likely voters. This means that subjects polled were given biographical descriptions of candidates, but not the names.

"Campaigns are long and numbers can change," said John Hlinko, one of the founders of the draft-Clark effort. "But there's no doubt that these numbers show that Gen. Wesley Clark would be a competitive candidate, to say the least."
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