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Clark Poised to Enter Democratic Race

The retired general, who has criticized Bush's tactics in Iraq, promises a decision next week.

September 12, 2003|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark looked and sounded like a candidate Thursday as he continued his Hamlet-like approach to a possible run for the presidency -- a candidacy that would add another twist to a Democratic campaign already marked by unpredictable turns.

Promising a decision next week, Clark acknowledged that he has in recent days talked to several political consultants about what it would take to launch a campaign for the Democratic nomination at this late stage of the process. Nine Democrats are already vying for the nomination.

"In the military, you do parallel planning," he told CNN. "If I decide to run, I want to be ready.''

Political Washington, meanwhile, buzzed with speculation that the former four-star general from Arkansas, who was first in his class at West Point and who led the successful military campaign against Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic, would join the race.

"It looks more and more like he's running," said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report, a newsletter that is one of Washington's important sources of political news.

Clark and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the field's current front-runner, met in California over the weekend, prompting a report in the Washington Post that Dean had asked Clark to support his campaign if he decides not to make the race himself.

As for reports that Dean and Clark discussed the vice presidential nomination, Dean spokeswoman Courtney O'Donnell said, "It's far too early to engage in discussions about a running-mate scenario."

Noting that the "governor has a tremendous amount of respect for the general," O'Donnell said Dean "is not discouraging him from his own ride."

Political consultants said a Clark candidacy for president would start with some heady disadvantages.

"The race is still wide open, but if he throws his hat in, he'll have to run a marathon," said Donna Brazile, the Democratic strategist who ran Al Gore's 2000 campaign.

Apart from money concerns -- the Web site claims $1.3 million in pledges, while Dean is likely to top $10 million in donations for this quarter alone -- Clark is untested as a candidate, particularly on social, domestic and economic issues.

"If he gets in and the campaign starts to take off, he's a blank slate," said Duffy of the Cook Political Report. "We don't know his position on lots of issues. We don't know if he can be inspirational."

A former White House fellow, Clark, 58, was honored for valor for his tours of duty in Vietnam, where he was in charge of three companies, including an infantry group.

He was promoted to major at the age of 31 and was the first member of his West Point class to command a battalion.

In Kosovo, amid reports of Serb ethnic cleansing of Muslims, Clark -- then NATO's supreme allied commander -- advocated air power to drive Milosevic from power while keeping Europe on board.

In recent months, Clark has spoken out in the media against President Bush's tactics in Iraq, questioning first the unilateral nature of the attack and later the failure to adequately plan for the postwar administration of Iraq.

But he is also vulnerable to attack from Republicans on foreign policy.

The military relieved him of his duties in Kosovo several months before his term was up -- former national security advisors say President Clinton was upset by Pentagon politics -- and his voluminous television utterances on Iraq might serve as fodder for GOP commercials against him.

Still, Clark's resume offers political advantage. Insiders say he might provide geographic balance to a ticket headed by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who has also talked with the former general.

And his background seems like electoral magic to a group of wannabe power-makers, who for months have been urging him to run for president. Clark, who has never run for political office, met with leaders last weekend in Los Angeles to thank them for their support.

"He thanked us; he asked good questions," Maya Israel, the draft movement's media strategist, said Thursday. "We're optimistic."

Not everyone thinks that Clark has decided to run. Mark Fabiani, Gore's communications strategist, has conferred with Clark and told CNN that the general is "doing the kind of things you'd do if you are going to run" -- but his entry into the race is still theoretical.

The 2004 presidential campaign has already known its share of surprises. With Kerry presumed the front-runner, Dean surged ahead, riding a Democratic antiwar sentiment and exploiting the innovative fund-raising prospects of the Internet.

Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, talked to Clark on Tuesday. McAuliffe said he would welcome Clark's entry into the race, and that if Clark runs he could attend the next Democratic debate, scheduled for Sept. 25 in New York.

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