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Battle for Democratic Party's US Presidential Nomination Complicated by Clark Candidacy - 2003-09-19

The battle for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination became more complicated and unpredictable this week, when retired General Wesley Clark became the 10th candidate to join the race.

From George Washington to Ulysses Grant to Dwight Eisenhower, Americans have shown that they are comfortable with the idea of turning generals into presidents. In fact, 12 of the 42 men who became president achieved the rank of general prior to their election.

And now, retired General Wesley Clark is seeking the job. First in his class at the U.S. military academy at West Point, General Clark came to prominence when he led the 1999 campaign in Kosovo as NATO's supreme commander.

He now intends to capitalize on his impressive military resume, pledging to restore lost jobs at home and improve the U.S. image abroad.

"These are historic times, and we are going to run a campaign that is worthy of the historic times in which we live," he said. "We are going to run a campaign that will move this country forward, not back. And we are going to talk straight to the American people, because in times of great historic challenges, the American people deserve to hear truth and hear it in plain and simple language."

The other nine Democrats running for president, as well as scores of political experts and strategists, are trying to assess the impact of the Clark candidacy.

"Well, he scrambles the race because of all the attention he has received and will receive," said Washington-based political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "He is a new face, and he has got an interesting profile. It is far from clear whether he will ultimately turn out to be a top-tier contender or just a quirky, interesting guy, who, once he is on the campaign trail, will prove that he is not up to the task. So, I think we will just have to wait and see."

Clark supporters see him as attractive, articulate and the Democrat best positioned to challenge President Bush on his handling of national security and foreign policy issues.

But the general has his detractors, as well. They say his intense personality led to clashes during the Clinton administration with fellow military officers and civilian defense officials who saw him as arrogant, and led eventually to his being forced out of his NATO command.

General Clark's late entry into the race presents him with some daunting political challenges. He must raise a lot of money in a short amount of time and organize campaign staffs in the early contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire, something his rivals have been doing for months.

General Clark has been critical of the president's military strategy on Iraq and how the administration has handled the aftermath of the war, rhetoric that pleases partisan Democrats upset with Mr. Bush.

But analyst Stuart Rothenberg says General Clark could have a difficult time competing for Democratic votes with the man who has climbed to the top of the field so far, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean.

"Even though he is a political outsider, and that is actually an asset at the moment, there is another political outsider already in the race, Howard Dean, a pre-existing critic of Iraq," he said. And so, Wesley Clark has somehow got to get around Howard Dean."

Another candidate who could be hurt by General Clark's entry into the race is Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. He has made his military service in Vietnam a centerpiece of his campaign, something that until now, had distinguished him from the rest of the Democratic field.

But General Clark is also a decorated Vietnam War veteran, and analyst Stuart Rothenberg says that could cut into some of the support for Senator Kerry.

"One of the core elements of Kerry's message is that he is the only person with military experience," he said. "He is courageous, he is a hero. Suddenly, Wesley Clark undercuts all of that."

Democrats believe the weak U.S. economy and continuing problems in Iraq have made President Bush more vulnerable in recent weeks. American University presidential historian Allan Lichtman told VOA television, that will add intensity to the battle for the Democratic nomination.

"George Bush's approval rating among the American people is now down to 52 percent, right where it stood before 9-11. His re-election numbers, the percent who want to see him reelected, are below 50 percent," he said.

But another recent poll indicated that President Bush would easily defeat any of his Democratic rivals next year, suggesting that the president retains a reservoir of support from his handling of the 2001 terrorist attacks and the resulting war on terrorism.

Analyst Stuart Rothenberg says the 2004 race will largely be shaped by how the public views the state of the economy and Iraq six-to-eight months from now.

"Take a look at the economy then, take a look at the situation in Iraq," he said. "Have we been able to bring in and internationalize the post-war environment there by bringing in other countries? Then the president will look pretty good. But if the economy is bad, and the war in Iraq is going poorly, then George W. Bush will be very, very vulnerable."

Even a late starter like Wesley Clark still has time to rally supporters to his campaign. The Democrats begin the actual business of picking their nominee in mid-January with the Iowa caucuses, followed a week later by the New Hampshire primary.