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Draft-Clark enthusiasts grow hopeful

By Deborah McGregor reports

FT.com site; Jul 21, 2003

Wesley Clark is not running for president of the US - at least not yet.

But in a cramped one-room office one block from the White House, a determined group of Clark enthusiasts are hard at work, hoping to draft the retired four-star general into the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

They claim that in three months they have signed up 30,000 members, collected thousands of letters from individuals urging the former Nato commander to run and raised nearly $250,000.

"He is the president we were promised as kids," says John Hlinko, a 36-year-old draft-Clark campaigner. "There's just something he evokes in people's hearts."

Mr Clark has not said he will run. He has not said he will not run. But as Iraq, growing budget deficits, faulty intelligence and other perceived woes take their toll on President George W. Bush's popularity, the draft-Clark forces grow more hopeful.

Simultaneously, the failure of any one of the nine Democratic contenders to emerge as a strong frontrunner is a reminder that it is still anybody's race.

Although Mr Clark, 58, has not declared a party affiliation and is not sponsoring any of the attempts to draft him, he has allowed speculation to build and promises to make his intentions known within the next month or so.

Some political experts are sceptical about Mr Clark's prospects, questioning his fundraising ability and lack of name recognition. The first crucial votes in the early battleground states of Iowa and New Hampshire, after all, are just six months away.

But others note that at this stage of the presidential cycle a dozen years ago, Bill Clinton was barely on the nation's political radar screen. And Dwight Eisenhower's presidency in the 1950s provides the historical precedent for a military man in the White House.

Chris Kofinis, a Democratic political consultant, suggests Mr Clark's entry would electrify the presidential race. "Democrats want someone who can win," he says, and that may mean the party's liberal wing may have to contemplate someone whose name begins with "General".

Mr Clark's background and idealism are central to his appeal. Raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, he graduated top in his high school class and then first in his class at the prestigious West Point military academy. After a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University, he volunteered for active duty in 1968. A combat veteran who served in the US army for 34 years, he retired in 2000. As Supreme Allied Commander of Nato, he led a force from 19 nations in the Kosovo conflict.

His Nato tenure was controversial. Mr Clark was viewed as too much of a micromanager with a reputation for being difficult. While he commanded the operation that eventually forced Serbian forces out of Kosovo, he was criticised by military experts for not assembling enough aircraft at the start of the campaign and for ruling out a ground invasion that may have speeded up a successful conclusion.

Mr Clark's defenders note that he was juggling the opinions of dozens of governments in complex political negotiations while prosecuting a difficult war.

Nonetheless, his abrupt departure from the top Nato job raised questions that Republicans will find tempting to revive should he enter the political arena.

Mr Clark is probably best known in the US for his regular television appearances as a military analyst on CNN, where he dispenses a polite indictment of the Bush policy in Iraq. He voiced strong doubts from the start.

His domestic policy views are less well known. But on tax cuts, for example, he has said simply: "The American people on the one hand don't like taxes. None of us do. But, on the other hand, we expect the government to do certain things for us."

Josh Margulies, a member of the draft-Clark group and a former Republican, admires Mr Clark for being "militarily unflinching but socially moderate".

The "buzz" surrounding Mr Clark's possible candidacy has grown considerably in recent weeks, following an impressive performance on the influential Meet the Press NBC Sunday morning programme last month.

As he considers his chances, not just television viewers are staying tuned. So is the entire political establishment.

Josh Margulies on July 21, 2003 04:57 PM | Comments (0)

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