Retired Gen. Wesley Clark immediately would become one of the top five candidates for the Democratic nomination if he enters the presidential race, according to the latest Gallup Poll.
As Gen. Clark prepares to announce his decision sometime this week about whether he will get into the contest, a national survey of nearly 500 Democrats for USA Today and CNN found that the former commander of NATO forces in Europe could take away nearly 10 percent of the vote from his potential rivals.
If Gen. Clark decides to run, he would start out in fifth place in the Democratic marathon, with 9 percent of the vote. Moreover, virtually all of his vote will come at the expense of the top four rivals ahead of him: Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who is in first place with 15 percent; former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, 13 percent; Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, 12 percent; and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, 11 percent.
Gallup’s survey shows that if Mr. Clark becomes the 10th candidate in the race, he would take two points away from Mr. Gephardt, two points from Mr. Dean, one point from Mr. Lieberman and three points from Mr. Kerry.
Five other Democratic candidates remain stuck in the low single digits, including former Sen. Carol Mosely Braun, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York City and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio.
The results of Gallup’s comparative match up, with Gen. Clark in and out of the race, suggest his candidacy would further splinter the Democratic vote and possibly make it more difficult for the party to develop a national political consensus around its strongest candidate.
As the race stands now — with little more than three months to go before the party caucuses and primaries begin in January — the top-tier candidates (including Gen. Clark) are bunched together in the battle for first place with no clear national front-runner.
But as the newest face in an expanding field of candidates, the leader of U.S. forces in the war in Kosovo would have more room to broaden his support than his potential rivals, who have been campaigning for many months.
About 20 percent of the Democrats questioned by the Gallup Poll either had no opinion or wanted someone new in the race. Other polls found that a third or more of the Democrats want another choice. Democratic strategists said that Gen. Clark could win over a sizeable chunk of this undecided bloc of Democrats as his campaign gets under way.
Still, his early support is significant for a largely unknown political figure who never has run for elective office before. But he has slowly built a national reputation over the past year for his sharp criticisms of President Bush’s defense policies and the decision to go to war in Iraq.
Meanwhile, in a separate survey of 1,025 Americans last week, the Gallup Poll found that Republicans continue to have a huge lead over the Democrats on “who can do a better job of protecting the country from international terrorism and military threats.”
Gallup said 51 percent of respondents trusted Republicans more than Democrats, and 36 trusted Democrats more.
Democrats fared better on which party can do a better job on the economy: They edged out the Republicans 46 percent to 42 percent.