In the short week since jumping into the race for president, former Gen. Wesley Clark has raised three-quarters of a million dollars and vaulted to the front of the Democratic field in at least one national poll. More significant, however, is the effect he's had on the focus of the race: By virtue of his background and early positioning, General Clark has effectively established the war in Iraq as the campaign's predominant issue - even while inadvertently highlighting the pitfalls it continues to present for Democratic contenders.
With Americans growing increasingly uneasy about the situation in Iraq, Democrats are sensing a rising opportunity to challenge President Bush on matters of national security - a challenge for which Clark's candidacy seems almost tailor-made, given his military background and his pointed criticism of the administration's handling of postwar Iraq.
Yet the issue has also presented the former NATO commander with the first stumble of his campaign, after he told reporters he "probably" would have voted for the congressional resolution authorizing the war- and then quickly reversed course to say he would "never" have voted to go to war.
On one level, this early lapse simply reflects Clark's political inexperience. But it may also illustrate just what a difficult balancing act Democrats face in trying to appeal both to the party's antiwar liberal base as well as to independent and swing voters who may agree with the original decision to go to war but have growing doubts about the administration's handling of the postwar phase.
Analysts say Clark's success in coming weeks and months will probably depend on his avoiding additional stumbles - and articulating a clear vision for the future of Iraq and foreign policy in general.
"Either he'll be able to take his credentials and his story and prove that he deserves to be in the first rank of candidates, or he won't," says Democratic pollster Peter Hart. " I don't think this incident will be the thing many people will remember by the time you get to January - but it could be a precursor of problems he may have."
Clark is already making waves within the Democratic race: According to a new Newsweek poll, he currently holds a slim lead over the entire field of Democratic contenders, with the support of 14 percent of Democratic voters nationwide. The same poll also found that in a head-to-head match-up against Bush, Clark fares better than any other candidate, coming in at a relatively competitive 43 percent to Bush's 47 percent.
Much of this strength may come from Clark's perceived ability to challenge Bush on defense and national security. Indeed, the next-strongest candidate in the match-up against Bush was Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who has also made a point of confronting Bush on these issues by emphasizing his experience in the Vietnam War.
Still, Senator Kerry has struggled to articulate a clear position on Iraq, since he has had to combine his attacks on the president's handling of the war with a defense of his own vote to authorize it. While Clark doesn't have an actual vote to defend, his stated support of the congressional resolution - and his hasty reversal - may similarly cloud his position.
Not surprisingly, Republicans are seizing on Clark's comments, portraying them as part of a broad pattern of Democratic flip-flops on Iraq.
At a Monitor breakfast Monday, Ed Gillespie, the head of the Republican National Committee, ran down a list of Democratic positions on the war: "John Kerry has had three different positions; Wesley Clark, the latest entrant, has had two different positions we know of so far," he says. "It is awfully hard to keep track of where these Democrats are when it comes to our national security policy. And I don't think the American people appreciate that kind of weak and indecisive approach."
Among Democratic primary voters, Clark's awkward early positioning on Iraq may also wind up hampering his ability to steal much of the liberal antiwar vote away from former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean - a bloc that could prove critical to winning the party's nomination.
In a recent conference call with reporters, Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi asserted that Clark's entry hasn't made any impact on Dean's fundraising or levels of support, and he implied that even if Clark shows an early surge of support, it's unlikely to eat into Dean's success. "This is not a zero-sum game," he said. "[Other] candidates can continue to grow out there and not affect our growth."
For all the Democratic contenders - but especially Clark - a crucial moment will likely come this Thursday, at the first candidate debate to include the former general. The forum will give all the candidates their first opportunity to position themselves in relation to Clark, further shuffling the dynamics of the race.
It will also give Clark a key chance to articulate a strong position on Iraq, a topic that will almost certainly dominate the debate. "He needs to come out extremely smooth and articulate; he can't bungle or waffle," says Allan Lichtman, a political historian at American University. "He needs to show complete command of domestic issues - and he needs to dominate in the national security realm."
• Staff writers Linda Feldmann and David Cook contributed to this report.