Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, at the strong urging of former President Bill Clinton, will announce today that he has decided to seek the Democratic presidential nomination.
The former NATO commander, who graduated first in his class at West Point and became a Rhodes scholar, is a Vietnam War combat veteran and rose through the ranks to lead U.S. forces in the 1999 war in Kosovo, will make the announcement in his hometown of Little Rock, Ark. He is expected to use the backdrop of MacArthur Park, site of the old U.S. Army Arsenal, where Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a hero of World War II, was born in 1880.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York is expected to serve as his campaign co-chairman, Fox News reports. There has been published speculation that if Mrs. Clinton decides later this year to enter the race herself she would choose Mr. Clark as her running mate. She has said emphatically that she will not run in 2004.
Mr. Clark, who was born in Illinois but grew up in Little Rock, has assembled a growing circle of aides drawn from both the Clinton and Gore campaigns to brief him on issues and set up a campaign organization to replace a draft-Clark group that has been working in his behalf for months.
That circle includes former Clinton campaign strategist Mark Fabiani, who was Mr. Gore’s communications director in his 2000 presidential bid; Ron Klain, Mr. Gore’s chief of staff; Washington lawyer Bill Oldaker; Skip Rutherford, a Clinton fund-raiser in Little Rock who has helped raise donations for the Clinton presidential library; Bruce Lindsey, a top Clinton White House aide; George Bruno, a New Hampshire party activist; Vanessa Weaver, a Clinton appointee; and Peter Knight, a Washington lobbyist and Clinton/Gore campaign fund-raiser.
Mr. Clark, who helped negotiate the Bosnia peace process in 1995, had several meetings with Mr. Clinton about his campaign. The former president has been unusually generous in his praise for Mr. Clark. “He has always exceeded in every endeavor,” Mr. Clinton said earlier this summer. “He understands America’s security challenges and domestic priorities. I believe he would make a good president.”
Mr. Clark, who has been a CNN analyst, has leveled sharp criticism on Mr. Bush’s war policies in Iraq, calling the U.S. military offensive to topple Saddam Hussein a “voluntary, elective, discretionary war.”
“He is putting together a stellar campaign team that knows the political landscape,” Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who managed Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, said last night. “You have other members of Congress who are ready to get on board. It’s more than just the Arkansas delegation.”
Although Mr. Clark is a political novice, not well-known in the party at large, and a late entry in the crowded field of nine who have been campaigning for months, some party strategists say he could be the fresh face that Democrats are seeking in a contest that has yet to produce a strong, national front-runner to challenge President Bush in 2004.
Polls show that two-thirds of Democratic voters cannot name any of their party’s candidates and one-third say they want other choices.
“He is a fresh face and there are many Democratic activists who like what they see in Gen. Clark. He has political juice,” Miss Brazile said.
Other Democratic strategists say that Mr. Clark’s opposition to the war in Iraq, together with his four-star military credentials in a party that polls show rates low with voters on issues of national security and fighting terrorism, could draw support away from several top Democratic contenders, including former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.
Mr. Dean has surged into the lead in Iowa and New Hampshire as a result of a wave of antiwar anger in the party’s liberal base. Some polls show that Mr. Clark could undermine some of Mr. Dean’s support and Mr. Kerry’s, as well.
The news of Mr. Clark’s long-awaited decision overshadowed the formal announcement yesterday by Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, whose presidential candidacy had yet to get off the ground. Mr. Edwards remains stuck in the low single digits in most national polls, though he has a slight lead in the South Carolina primary.
Mr. Clark has four months to raise his profile before the party caucuses and primaries begin in January, and his war chest of no more than $1 million in campaign pledges is far less than the $20 million or more that some of his rivals expect to raise this year.
“It’s not too late to get into the race if I decide to run,” he said, still striking a coy note. “We’ll make an announcement in Little Rock tomorrow. We’re tremendously excited.”
Mr. Clinton did not begin his race for the 1992 presidential nomination until Oct. 1, 1991, although he had been campaigning around the country for two years as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council.
Mr. Clark told the Associated Press that he still has “a lot of learning to do,” especially on domestic issues where his views are all but unknown. “I’ll do my best, but there will be a lot of things that I don’t know right away. I want to learn. I’ve got a whole period of time. I want to talk to people about the issues.”