LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — After watching from the sidelines for months, former Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor was lured into action by presidential candidate Wesley Clark — with a nudge from former President Bill Clinton.
“The president knows General Clark better than I know General Clark, and I just asked what he thought,” Mr. Kantor recalled. “He said, ‘I have a tremendous regard for him.’”
And with that, Mr. Kantor joined the former Army general’s campaign as a senior adviser.
By action and association, Mr. Clinton has had a major impact on Mr. Clark’s first bid for elective office, causing some Democrats to wonder whether the former president’s pledge of impartiality may be giving way to his loyalty toward a fellow Arkansan.
There has been speculation that the former president is encouraging a weak candidate, expecting him to lose, leaving the field open for his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, to run in 2008, or, more recently, that the Clintons want Mr. Clark in the race to build name-recognition now so that he will be a credible running mate for Mrs. Clinton if or when she gets into the race later this year.
Some Democrats say that seems far-fetched, though Mr. Clinton fueled speculation this week when he hinted, or seemed to, that Mrs. Clinton would run in ‘04 despite her promise to complete her Senate term. Many of her supporters in New York are urging her to run, the former president said.
“That’s really a decision for her to make.”
There is no proof that Mr. Clinton is pulling the strings in Mr. Clark’s campaign — indeed, most Democrats say they doubt the former president would be so bold.
But some party activists, particularly those lodged in rival campaigns, point to circumstantial evidence suggesting that the impressive list of political heavyweights rallying behind Mr. Clark may be a reflection of Mr. Clinton’s endearment — if not endorsement.
Others say the support is coincidental, a result of so many Clinton allies vowing to remain neutral in this year’s election only to get the itch late in the cycle.
Another theory: Mr. Clark’s is the last hope for establishment Democrats who fear the other contenders have stalled while the current front-runner, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, would be defeated by President Bush.
“I think for several months now the establishment — you know, the guys and girls who believe they’re in the loop — they’ve been looking for a horse to ride and they looked at the nine in the race and said, ‘All the seats aren’t taken,’” said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile.
Regardless of the reasons why, it can’t be disputed that Mr. Clinton is casting a long shadow over Mr. Clark’s campaign and that the Clintons urged Mr. Clark to enter.
“He’s a smart man, served our country well,” Mr. Clinton said in Iowa Sept. 13.
Mr. Clark’s advisers point out that Mr. Clinton has counseled other Democratic candidates, and heaps them all with praise.
Then there’s Mr. Clark’s team, a potent mix of Clinton allies from Arkansas and lieutenants of two Clinton campaigns in the 1990s.
Skip Rutherford, head of the Clinton presidential library, former White House lawyer Bruce Lindsey, former Sen. David Pryor, Arkansas Democrat, and the entire Arkansas congressional delegation lined up behind Mr. Clark this week.
When Mr. Clark convened the first conference call of his campaign, he was joined by several Clinton allies, including former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, former White House aide Rahm Emanuel, now a congressman from Illinois, and former Clinton White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry, participants said.
A close Clinton associate, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the former president is not siding with any candidate. However, he said Mr. Clinton is the most “emotionally invested” with Mr. Clark, the candidate with whom he has the most in common. The pair has had a casual acquaintance since the 1960s, culminated by the rise and fall of Mr. Clark’s military career under Mr. Clinton.
Mr. Clinton is walking a fine line between impartiality and sending subtle signals of his support, the official said. Mr. Kantor said Mr. Clinton did not ask him to aid Mr. Clark.
“The only connection is we all share the same philosophy and sense of commitment to moving the country forward,” Mr. Kantor said of Mr. Clark and his new team.