Retired General Wesley Clark's campaign for the Democratic nomination for president got off to a late start, but a growing group of supporters is convinced he has the best chance of any of the party's candidates to beat President Bush next November. General Clark's strong military credentials make for an impressive resume in a campaign that is expected to be dominated by security-related issues such as the conflict in Iraq and the war on terrorism. Correspondent Meredith Buel profiles General Clark in this background report from Washington.
At a bookstore in a fashionable neighborhood of Washington hundreds of men and women wait in a long line to meet the most recent candidate to enter the race for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States.
Retired General Wesley Clark is signing his latest book called Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism and the American Empire, and on this day there is no shortage of supporters like Cindy Baltierra of McLean, Virginia, who say they are eager to vote for him.
"Probably far and away is the resume the man presents," she said. "He is so phenomenally impressive. His credentials as a Rhodes Scholar and a four-star general - a brilliant, charismatic man. Frankly I think he has the single, best chance of any contender out there to beat Bush and that is the most important thing in my life right now."
General Clark waited until September to announce his candidacy, many months after the other Democratic candidates entered the race.
Since then, however, his fundraising has been strong and opinion polls consistently show him in the top tier of those seeking the nomination.
"I did come into the race late. I am not a professional politician. I came into the race because I am very worried about the direction this country is headed in," he said. "I think we are suffering from a deficit of leadership in foreign policy and a deficit of leadership at home."
Born in the southern state of Arkansas, the 59-year-old Clark has cast himself as a modern-day Dwight Eisenhower, the last American with a full-time career in the military to be elected president.
General Clark was first in his class at the United States Military Academy at West Point. During his 34 years in the Army, General Clark was badly injured in combat during the Vietnam War and eventually rose through the ranks to become the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO.
General Clark helped negotiated the Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the conflict in Bosnia, and commanded the forces that drove then Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his Serb forces from Kosovo.
The general's hard-charging style, and significant disagreements over military strategy with his superiors at the Pentagon, led then Defense Secretary William Cohen to ease him out of his NATO command.
After retiring from active duty in 2000, General Clark said that during his entire military career he had only two bad days, the day he was shot four times in Vietnam and the day he was told he would have to leave his job commanding NATO and retire early.
After his retirement the general became familiar to many Americans as a military analyst and commentator for the Cable News Network.
His advisors are hoping the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the war in Iraq will elevate national security so high on the political agenda that voters will want a military leader in the White House.
They hope, at least, that General Clark can neutralize President Bush's advantage on security issues.
On the campaign trail, the retired general has been highly critical of the Bush administration's decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein's government because he believes it has drawn attention and resources from the war on terrorism.
"I saw that this is an administration that would rather go and attack states than go and attack terrorists. It is fundamentally wrong as a policy," he said. "If we are going to be safe we have to go after the terrorists. We have to go after Osama bin Laden. We have to go after the centerpiece of the war on terror, not knocking off states."
Political analysts say the general made a big political blunder early in his campaign, when he said he would "probably" have supported a resolution in the U.S. Congress authorizing the war in Iraq. The analysts say the statement undercut his position opposing the conflict.
General Clark now tells audiences he made a rookie mistake, saying he simply "bobbled the question."
General Clark does support the reconstruction of Iraq, saying the United Nations should be in charge of building a new government in Baghdad and more countries should be involved in providing security for the country.
Daniel Adkins, a 59-year-old Clark supporter from Washington, D.C., says the candidate's commitment to building international alliances has won his vote.
"I think America is powerful when it works with its friends and its allies and it goes on its values," he said. "That is what inspires me about General Clark. I really want to work with the rest of the world and I think he will lead us in that direction."
Some Democratic activists question the general's recent decision to join their political party.
In previous elections, like many in the military, he voted for Republican presidential candidates including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush's father. In 2000, General Clark says he did vote for Democratic nominee Al Gore. The general says while he was in the military he was not a member of a political party and voted for candidates who emphasized national security matters.
On domestic issues General Clark has proposed what he calls a "turnaround plan for America."
He says the plan will raise family incomes, put one million more children into colleges, save 100,000 lives through cleaning up the environment and make health insurance more accessible to the poor.
Due to his campaign's late start, General Clark decided to skip the earliest electoral contest in the state of Iowa January 19, and focus his efforts on the New Hampshire primary January 27 where he hopes for a respectable showing against the current front-runner, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean.
Some political analysts expect General Clark will emerge as an alternative candidate to Mr. Dean. His supporters hope that will help him gain momentum and boost his performance in primaries scheduled for early February.