The dynamics of the Democratic presidential contest - for months dominated by the surge of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean - may soon take a dramatic twist, with the possible addition of a new candidate.
The expected announcement Wednesday by former Gen. Wesley Clark that he will seek the Democratic nomination would almost certainly scramble the race, at least in the short run.
With just four months to go before Democrats begin heading to the polls, Clark's decision to jump in reflects a growing sense among Democrats that President Bush may indeed be vulnerable in 2004. But it also points to an ongoing concern about the weaknesses of the current Democratic field - a concern that has grown in some Democratic circles as Governor Dean, whose antiwar stance some believe could hurt the party's chances in the general election, has taken the lead.
Certainly, as the 10th candidate in an already crowded field, and a sudden fresh face, General Clark would likely attract an initial burst of energy and attention, stealing the spotlight. Indeed, already, press leaks surrounding Clark's plans overshadowed Sen. John Edwards's official announcement of his candidacy Tuesday.
Still, analysts point out that Clark remains a political novice - and while he may attract media attention, he could have a much harder time building the kind of political organization needed to raise money and perform well in early primary states.
"He will suck a lot of oxygen and [generate] media attention that will be almost Arnold-ian," says independent pollster John Zogby. "The caveat though is ... can he put an organization together in four months? Media attention is wonderful, but those who had lots of media attention in the past, like Jimmy Carter and John McCain, also had organizations in every blue highway in the state."
In some ways, Clark's entry represents a potential threat to almost every candidate in the field. As another Washington outsider who has generated a sizable Internet following, he could block Dean's momentum. Clark also spoke out against the Iraq war, but unlike Dean, the former NATO commander would be hard to attack as weak on defense.
Clark could also hurt Sen. John Kerry, since Kerry would no longer be the sole Vietnam veteran in the field. And as a Southerner, he could draw some support away from Senator Edwards and Florida Sen. Bob Graham.
Significantly, Clark's entry would come at a time when President Bush seems increasingly vulnerable on national security. Polls show the public is growing less comfortable with his handling of Iraq.
Still, it was only a few weeks ago that Clark revealed his party affiliation - and many observers point out that his positions on a range of issues from tax cuts to healthcare are almost completely unknown.
"We don't know enough about him," says GOP strategist Charlie Black. "We know his biography, but we don't know his positions, where he'll be in the spectrum of the Democratic field."
While a Clark candidacy might draw some comparisons to that of Dwight Eisenhower, observers point out that Ike was far more of a national hero - and that the Kosovo campaign, which Clark led, was not exactly World War II.
"Clark has the "general" in front of his name, but he's not a military hero, exactly," says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University.
Although one recent national poll showed Clark with a relatively strong 10 percent support among Democrats - ahead of several other candidates already in the race - analysts point out that his support in key early primary states remains almost nonexistent.
Still, because of his late entry, Clark may benefit from lower expectations, and may be able to write off a weak performance in Iowa and New Hampshire better than other candidates. If Dean winds up winning in both of those states (he currently leads in New Hampshire and leads or is tied for first in Iowa), Clark may be one of the contenders least damaged by those results, and best able to challenge Dean in the remaining contests.
"This is going to come down to a two-man race, Dean and the anti-Dean," says political analyst Charlie Cook. "Someone has to be the anti-Dean.... [and] Clark because of his late start would at least have an excuse why he might not do well in Iowa and New Hampshire."
• Linda Feldmann and Gail Russell Chaddock contributed.