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Clark Declaring Bid for President

The late start by the retired general and ex-NATO commander, a Democrat, puts him behind in fund-raising and organization.

September 17, 2003|Johanna Neuman and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, who led NATO's campaign to oust Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, will announce his candidacy for president today in his hometown of Little Rock, Ark., political associates said Tuesday.

Clark has been signaling for weeks that he would become the 10th candidate in the Democratic race, and he left little doubt about his plans in comments Tuesday. "I believe I'm the most qualified man to stand for election, represent this party, in this election of 2004," he said on CNN. "And I believe I'm the most qualified man to become the next president of the United States -- man or woman."

He added: "We're going to have a vision that helps transform this country to meet the challenges of the 21st century. And I believe I can lead that."

His candidacy would add another unpredictable element to a Democratic race that already has been marked by the surprise surge of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose campaign's aggressive use of the Internet helped him galvanize Democrats opposed to the war in Iraq.

Clark, 58, has never run for office, and political analysts say that looms as both his biggest asset and greatest vulnerability.

"Democrats are so hungry for change, for somebody to speak up for them," said Democratic consultant Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. "Dean's impressive campaign has shown that you must give voice to those who want to see a change in our priorities.

"If Gen. Clark can suck up that oxygen," she said, he should fare well in the race.

Clark benefits because he's "not one of the other nine," said Philip Klinkner, associate professor of government at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.

But Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst, expressed skepticism about Clark's prospects. Referring to his frequent appearances on cable network news shows as a military analyst, Rothenberg said of Clark: "I think it's just very different from when you're whizzing onto CNN to do some commentary ... versus if you're really under the scrutiny of the national media."

Clark also starts late in the process -- and behind in two assets that are keys to successful presidential campaigns: money and political organization. But his backers express confidence that Clark can quickly become financially competitive and put together an effective campaign team.

"There's been an outpouring of support over the last couple of weeks," said Mark Fabiani, a former Gore staffer who flew to Little Rock for Clark's expected announcement. "It's an unusual year. Maybe it's an excellent time for this kind of candidacy."

Clark's major selling point is his 33-year military record: first in his class at West Point, a veteran of Vietnam who was wounded in action, and NATO commander during the 1999 conflict in Kosovo. Clark supporters say that background would enable him to neutralize President Bush's credentials as a wartime president, the issue Democrats fear could be the most crucial to voters.

It also would give Clark greater latitude and credibility than the other Democrats in attacking the administration's foreign policy, his backers say.

Leading up to the war in Iraq, Clark advocated giving the United Nations more time to determine whether Saddam Hussein's regime was hiding weapons of mass destruction. After Hussein's government was quickly toppled, he praised the military's performance but criticized the administration for going it alone and for not preparing better for the peace.

In the short term, Clark's candidacy could stall Dean's momentum and hinder the other top-tier candidates, if for no other reason than by stealing the media spotlight. On Tuesday, for instance, news of his expected candidacy overshadowed the rally that Sen. John Edwards held in his home state of North Carolina to officially launch his campaign.

Clark's campaign also could force other candidates to change strategic gears. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) highlights his background as a Vietnam War hero and foreign policy expert. Now, said Patrick Basham, senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute think tank, "he's out-soldiered by Clark." Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) has hoped to appeal to more moderate voters in the South with his pro-war stance. Now, says Basham, Lieberman may no longer be "the most attractive candidate for those receptive to a moderate record."

But Clark is largely an unknown figure who, as a candidate, must soon detail his views on a host of domestic issues that are of vital importance to core Democratic constituencies.

According to the Web site, started in April by self-described political independents in hopes of propelling Clark into the race, he favors abortion rights and supports the principle of affirmative action. He also backs a review of the USA Patriot Act, the domestic anti-terrorism measure enacted after the Sept. 11 attacks, to assess its effectiveness and potential damage to individual rights.

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