The Candidate from Central Casting

But Wesley Clark's outsider status is a mixed blessing

Most times, the late entry into the Presidential race of a political novice like former General Wesley K. Clark would be met with indulgent smiles from campaign pros. With four months to go before the Iowa caucuses, Clark, who entered the fray on Sept. 17 in his hometown of Little Rock, seems to lack many of the essential weapons for the political wars: He has never held office, relies on a shop-worn band of former Clinton aides for advice, and may be hard-pressed to raise the $20 million-plus that the likes of Howard Dean and John F. Kerry plan to lavish on the race.

The thing is, 2004 may be anything but a conventional election year -- which makes it unwise to dismiss Clark's charge as a mere flight of fancy. Dragged down by a soggy economy and an increasingly troubled Iraq intervention, President George W. Bush is looking vulnerable. But in the post-September 11 era, many Democrats still seek a standard-bearer with solid credentials on national security -- a niche none of the current crop of contenders has filled.

Enter Clark, the candidate from Central Casting. After graduating first in his class at West Point and winning a Rhodes scholarship, he fought in Vietnam, leading a mechanized infantry company. In 1970, his unit came under enemy fire near Saigon. Clark, then 26, was shot four times. The injuries required a year of rehab and earned him a Silver Star for valor under fire.

By the time he was 52, Clark was Supreme Allied Commander Europe, a post from which he directed the 1999 NATO war against Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. The 78-day air blitz won the hard-charging general international acclaim -- and his share of enemies. Back at headquarters, Clark "was viewed as a self-promoter," says one ex-Pentagon official.

Clark's greatest asset, friends say, is his innate intelligence. It's also his greatest liability. During his NATO days, the studious soldier struck many officers as a showboat. He alienated the Pentagon by arguing publicly for ground troops in Kosovo -- options that proved unnecessary in light of ultraprecise bombing. Ultimately, the jockeying cost Clark his command. Then-Defense Secretary William S. Cohen got his revenge by having the Arkansan dismissed three months early from his Brussels post.

No doubt about it, Clark the warrior-scholar was a different kind of general, and he figures to be a different kind of candidate. Despite a chestful of medals, he was an early foe of the preemptive war against Iraq. In books and lectures, he displays a coherent strategic vision and a belief in multilateral alliances -- qualities Democrats feel have been lacking under Team Bush. Clark is positioned as an outsider, but he has spent much of his post-military career hobnobbing with the Establishment. Moreover, his battle ribbons give him instant credibility to shape the attack on Bush foreign policy -- credentials even fellow Vietnam vet Kerry can't match.

Enhancing his allure to party activists, Clark, 58, is a liberal on social issues such as abortion, gun control, and affirmative action. He would also repeal many Bush tax cuts for upper-bracket Americans while leaving lower rates in place for the middle class. That distinguishes him from Dean, who wants to roll back much of Bush's $3.5 trillion in cuts and favors an expensive health plan. "What this race needs is a centrist," says Clark adviser Skip Rutherford. "That's where Clark comes in."

While not discounting Clark, political pros say he faces long odds in his quest for the Presidency. Most point to Clark's lack of money. But with a candidacy as novel as his -- the closest parallel is Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1952 run -- donations could pour in quickly if the general shines in upcoming debates. Clark "will be a formidable candidate," says Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). Adds a top GOP strategist: "If Dean is [White House political guru] Karl Rove's greatest fantasy, Clark is his worst nightmare."

Perhaps. But Clark is also about to be tested in the fast-paced environment of political combat. Among the key questions looming over his candidacy:

STUMP SAVVY. Clark has impressed CEOs and academics with his erudite geopolitical analyses at the World Economic Forum and elsewhere. But can he connect one-on-one with voters in New Hampshire kaffeeklatsches? "Wowing them in Davos isn't the same as wowing them on the rubber-chicken circuit," says Linda L. Fowler, a government professor at Dartmouth College. "No one really knows what kind of candidate Clark will be."

MONEY QUESTIONS. Top Democrats such as former Vermont Governor Dean, Massachusetts Senator Kerry, and Connecticut Senator Joseph I. Lieberman have commitments from prominent fund-raisers. Some moderate businesspeople say they would be willing to cough up cash for Clark -- but most are waiting to see if he catches fire in early polls. "The money will come if Clark proves he's for real," says one party pol. "But first he has to prove it."

ISSUES LAND MINES. Right now, Clark's pitch is top-heavy with views on national security. As he fills in the blanks with his stands on taxes, jobs, and education, he may be tempted to tack left in order to appeal to the activists who dominate primary voting. Too sharp a shift, however, could imperil Clark's outsider status -- a potent lure for independent voters who can tilt the outcome in states such as New Hampshire and South Carolina. "Pandering to interest groups," says a GOP official, "could cost Clark the notion of being a straight talker."

CLINTON CONNECTION. While former President Bill Clinton, with whom Clark dines regularly, has encouraged him to run, the association could backfire. Many top Clintonites, such as former White House consigliere Bruce Lindsey, are advising the general. But those links and Clark's nearly three-year stint at Stephens Inc. -- a controversial Little Rock investment firm that often mixes money and politics -- may revive memories of Arkansas' hothouse politics.

TEMPERAMENT. During his NATO stint, Clark earned a reputation as a prickly leader with sharp elbows to match. He irked Pentagon suits by taking his concerns over the air-only war in Kosovo to White House pals, and irritated military officers by turning on a dime to take credit for the successful air campaign. As a result, "Clark doesn't have a lot of friends at the Pentagon," says Chester A. Crocker, a professor at the School of Foreign Services at Georgetown University and a former Assistant Secretary of State under Reagan. The big question for Campaign '04: Will the general morph into an Alexander Haig-style control freak when the campaigning gets rough?

Clark's advisers feel the fears over-blown. Yes, the general with a penchant for intellectual treatises is a political greenhorn, they say. And that's just the quality his advisers hope will propel their hero to the head of the Democratic pack -- and all the way to the White House.

By Lee Walczak and Richard S. Dunham with Stan Crock in Washington

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