By Richard S. Dunham As the field of Democrats jockeying for the chance to take on President George W. Bush in 2004 grows, party activists have an eye on one prospective candidiate who hails from Arkansas, is a former Rhodes Scholar, and grew up humbly in an adoptive home.
Sound familiar? This time the fresh face from Little Rock is retired U.S. Army General Wesley K. Clark, the 58-year-old former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. The similarities with Bill Clinton quickly end, however. Clark graduated first in his class at West Point. He was a platoon leader in Vietnam, where he was wounded four times and won a chestful of medals. He went on to command U.S. forces in Europe, where he directed the campaign that drove Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic from power. Since retiring from the Army three years ago, Clark has stayed visible as an analyst on CNN and a lecturer on the rubber-chicken circuit.
MAKING THE ROUNDS. What intrigues so many Democrats is the ex-general's message: President Bush's single-minded pursuit of war against Iraq has shattered traditional alliances and may create a Middle East quagmire. Coming from a career soldier, this argument packs a punch. "He's the only Democrat who has all the issues coming his way," says Skip Rutherford, a Little Rock communications consultant and friend of both Clinton and Clark. "He brings the party credibility on war, international relations, military strength, and terrorism."
Plus, Clark hits all the right notes on domestic issues for Democratic activists. He supports affirmative action, abortion rights, and a return to the kind of fiscal discipline of the Clinton years under Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin. If Clark can ignite the Democratic base, his foreign-policy credibility could make a difference with swing voters, some pols believe. "An impressive fellow with an impressive résumé," says Washington & Lee University political scientist William F. Connelly Jr.
Clark clearly is testing the waters. He lunched in January with Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe and met with some of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's top New York money-raisers. While Clark didn't respond to requests for comment, associates say he has informed them that he'll wait to see how the U.S.-Iraqi showdown unfolds.
FALLING BEHIND. If he does enter the race, candidate Clark faces an uphill battle, however. Waiting much longer will put him at a distinct disadvantage against a field that's already organized and collecting cash. "If someone doesn't raise a significant amount of money before the process begins, they have little hope of enduring the rapid set of early primaries," says University of Iowa political scientist Arthur Miller. A Feb. 21-23 Zogby poll of New Hampshire voters found Clark running second to last -- ahead of only Florida Senator Bob Graham -- with just 0.5% of the vote in Democratic voter preference.
There's also the danger he'll lose key backers to more aggressive contenders while he bides his time. A recent example: Former Representative Dick Swett (D-N.H.) and his wife, Katrina, a 2002 congressional candidate, recently threw their support to Connecticut Senator Joseph I. Lieberman. The Swetts "were very high on Clark," says independent New Hampshire pollster Dick Bennett. "This makes it even more difficult." Such Granite State endorsements count for votes for the Jan. 27, 2004, primary.
To best the current field of Democrats, Clark would have to catch fire with the electorate in much the same way that GOP 2000 contender John McCain did -- by stressing an outsider image. Clark can also play up his business experience as a consultant for Little Rock-based investment bank Stephens Inc., where he focused on developing emerging-technology companies.
"ARKANSAS NETWORK." The Republican negative-research team is already at work, however. If Clark's star ascends, the GOP'ers are poised to paint him as a thin-skinned hothead -- just as backers of President Bush tried to paint McCain in the 2000 Republican primary season. Back when he was NATO commander, Clark's relations with then-Defense Secretary William Cohen and the Pentagon brass over a strategy for ending ethnic bloodshed were often volatile and openly testy. Antiwar activists were enraged over his aggressive bombing of Serbia during the showdown over ending "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia.
The general's friends say he has plenty of time to mount an unconventional counterstrike. "He has an Arkansas network that's loyal to him, a Rhodes Scholar network that helps him -- plus he has military connections in every nook and cranny around the country," says Rutherford. And even if Clark doesn't snag the Presidential nomination, he's already considered prime Vice-Presidential timber.
Having a military man on the ticket who can make political war on the current occupant of the White House sounds mighty good to Democratic partisans these days. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online