Can Wesley Clark be the Democrats' Ike?
Supporters pressure former general to get into the race, but Clark, for now, is mum.
WASHINGTON — "Hey, have a Clark bar!" says John Hlinko to a visiting reporter at the headquarters of DraftWesleyClark.com, a block east of the White House. He hands over the chocolate peanut-butter crunch candy, tickled by his latest promotional trick.
Next comes a cascade of folded letters - 30,000 of them, printouts of e-mails from Clark supporters encouraging him to run for president, the Clarkites say - tumbling off a table. Above hangs a map of the United States encrusted with little red and white flags showing where Gen. Wesley Clark, former supreme allied commander of NATO, has clusters of support.
Will he or won't he? Time is ticking away - and may have run out - for newcomers to enter the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Now that Sen. Joe Biden (D) of Delaware has opted out, General Clark remains the only prominent possible addition to the Democratic field - and he still hasn't declared if he's a Democrat. (Rumors still abound that 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore may yet jump in, but analysts say that's unlikely. Ditto for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.)
Clark has said he'd decide by the end of summer, and hinted at an announcement Labor Day weekend - just in time, if the answer is yes, to take part in the first Democratic primary presidential debate on Sept. 4.
DraftWesleyClark.com, the largest of several draft committees trying to lure the retired four-star general into running, will start running TV ads this week in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first states in the nominating process, and in Little Rock, Ark., Clark's hometown. DraftWesleyClark.com is registered with the Federal Election Commission as an "unauthorized political committee," and has no contact with the general.
Clark's supporters see two signs that there's room for one more candidate: the lack of a clear Democratic front-runner and the fact that the only Democrat with momentum is former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who has captivated some in the liberal base but makes the party establishment nervous, in part because of his lack of experience on defense issues.
"The strength of a Clark candidacy is his depth of knowledge and experience and leadership in the military," says Kristo Kofinis, a paid Democratic adviser to the D.C.-based draft committee.
"Now, security trumps other issues," adds Mr. Hlinko, co-chair of DraftWesleyClark.com, along with Hlinko's brother-in-law, Josh Margulies, a Republican. "The war on terrorism, national security, safety - those won't change."
As a CNN military commentator, the silver-haired, square-jawed general has criticized the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war and its aftermath. On social issues, he supports abortion rights, affirmative action, and gays in the military. On the economy, Bush's Achilles heel in polls, Clark is also critical: He opposed Bush's tax cuts, calling them unfair and inefficient as a stimulus for creating jobs. He also criticizes Bush for allowing the budget deficit to skyrocket.
For Clark boosters, the gold-plated résumé makes them stand and salute: first in his class at West Point, Rhodes scholar, 34 years in the military, Vietnam combat veteran, NATO commander. He's also an investment banker and an author - his second book, "Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire," comes out in September.
But as a career military man untested in political combat and fundraising, with low name recognition outside the beltway, Clark faces steep hurdles should he decide to jump in. And the fact that he's waited this long may be a signal that he doesn't have the fire in the belly, some analysts say. Some also believe it may well be too late.
"There's a small chance Wesley Clark could catch fire in the way that Ross Perot or Jesse Ventura did, but I would bet strongly against that," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "You don't declare as a Democrat just a few months before the nominating process and expect a big crowd.... As a dark-horse candidate for VP, maybe, but I doubt he even gets that."
Kathleen Sullivan, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, says that with each passing day, Clark is making it more difficult for himself. He's missing Democratic forums; he's not raising money. She observes: "You don't know that it's too late till the door's closed behind you."
Independent pollster John Zogby does see an opening, given the fluidity of the Democratic field and lack of front-runner: "Nationally, you're still hovering around 50 percent of Democrats who don't have a candidate yet."
In addition to the TV ad, DraftWesleyClark.com is trying to nudge Clark to "yes" by lining up $550,000 in fundraising pledges for the General Fund (pun intended) and signing up almost 8,000 "members." In the past 90 days, the group has gone from one "meetup" of supporters in Washington, D.C., to more than 230 scheduled for Sept. 8.
By then, Clark may well have made a decision. And if nothing else, his band of 30-something draft organizers will have had some fun. They've even got the dream running mate in mind: Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota. The bumper stickers would read, "Clark Kent: Superticket for America."