The Magazine

A Four-Star Candidate?

From the September 29, 2003 issue: Wesley Clark announces for president.

Sep 29, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 03 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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LET'S SAY you're a former supreme allied commander of NATO. You want to be the 44th president of the United States. You've never held political office--not even as secretary of your high school student council. There are only four months left before the first Democratic presidential primary, and you discovered you're a Democrat only two weeks ago. The cards you're holding aren't the strongest in the deck. You might even be tempted to think that your dream of global leadership is a fantasy.

But not if you are Gen. Wesley Clark, who officially entered the contest for the Democratic nomination for president last Wednesday. This makes him the second silver star winner, third southerner, and tenth candidate in the race. Both Republicans and Democrats greeted Clark's entry with uncertainty. Supporters say the general's résumé and his command of foreign policy are what Democrats need to unseat Bush. Clark skeptics point to his political inexperience and lack of an organization as reasons not to take his candidacy seriously.

The skeptics sell the general short. Clark could become the Democratic nominee. So far, only Howard Dean has captured the attention of the Democratic base. But members of the Democratic establishment aren't convinced that the former governor of Vermont could defeat President Bush. Democrats want an antiwar candidate and a candidate who can win. Some think Clark is the one candidate who is both.

It's easy to find leading Democrats who are enthusiastic about Clark's candidacy. No less a figure than President Clinton calls him "brilliant, . . . brave, . . . and good," and one of the party's two "stars" (the other being Hillary). DNC chair Terry McAuliffe says Clark would have "tremendous credibility" in a presidential contest. And AFSCME president Gerald McEntee declined to endorse a candidate until Clark decided whether or not he was in the race.

More important, a host of former Clinton consultants and fundraisers have rallied to Clark's side. Clark's new advisers include former Gore adviser Mark Fabiani, strategist Ron Klain, and lawyer Bill Oldaker. Arkansas attorney and former White House counsel Bruce Lindsey is behind Clark. So are New Hampshire Democratic activist George Bruno, Democratic fundraiser Skip Rutherford, and former Clinton trade representative Mickey Kantor. These men comprise a good chunk of the social register of Democratic consulting.

Another former Gore adviser, Chris Lehane, just quit his job as John Kerry's communications director. If Lehane ends up advising Clark alongside Fabiani, it will be an important signal that the party's top talent is backing the general. "It's very impressive," says Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, "that a guy who's never stepped foot in the political arena can attract this type of talent."

The fingerprints of these key Democratic strategists were all over Clark's announcement last week. The day before, spokesman Fabiani leaked to the press that Clark would enter the race. The result was that Clark dominated political headlines for two days and overshadowed fellow southerner John Edwards's relaunch of his presidential campaign. If this was the work of a political novice, then the other Democratic candidates have every reason to be afraid.

Clark skeptics focus on two weaknesses--timing and money--neither of which seems fatal. Contemporary politics moves so swiftly that a Howard Dean can rise from nobody to insurgent to front-runner in the space of a few months. Bill Clinton was polling in single digits in October 1991. And the last general-turned-president, Eisenhower, entered the 1952 presidential race only two months before the first primaries. "I wouldn't support Clark if it were too late," says Democratic congressman Charles Rangel, an early Clark supporter. "I just can't find any substantial negative in the general."

Fundraising is a more serious weakness for Clark. It's likely that when the candidates file their quarterly reports with the Federal Elections Commission on September 20, Dean will have raised up to three times as much as any of the other Democrats. So far Clark supporters have raised a little over $1 million for the general. But Clark's operation, like Dean's, is well positioned to take advantage of Internet fundraising. What's more, some Democrats say there's still money to be had in this race. "The 800 lb. fundraising gorillas haven't been tapped yet," says Brazile.