The General Jumps In

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STEVE LISS FOR TIME

BATTLE READY? Clark makes his case to voters in Iowa City

Wesley Clark was top of his class at West Point, a Rhodes scholar, a decorated four-star general and the man who humbled Slobodan Milosevic when Clark was Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. But if he made any impression at all on many Americans, it happened after he retired and found stardom on cnn as one of the smoothest and most antiwar of the corps of generals turned commentators during the Iraq war. So maybe it was not such a surprise that just 11/2 hours after Clark made another career leap last week, he could be found in his spartan Little Rock, Ark., office, remote control in hand, transfixed by the talking heads' first take on his newborn presidential campaign. "A placeholder for Hillary Rodham Clinton," Pat Buchanan huffed from the screen. "I think we're seeing the idea percolating here of a Clinton-Clark ticket." Clark sighed and hit the mute button. "Oh, brother," he said. "Politics."

Welcome aboard, sir. Clark's announcement that he was running landed like a rocket-propelled grenade in the messy bunker that is the Democratic presidential field. He's off to a late start, but thanks to an Internet-driven draft movement, Clark has the beginnings of an organization and the promise of millions of dollars. Making the rounds of Democratic salons in New York and Los Angeles in recent weeks, he has wowed some of the people who could gather millions more. Within 24 hours of getting into the race, Clark had a list of congressional endorsements more impressive than anyone else's except former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt's.

But politics quickly proved a trickier terrain for the telegenic antiwar general than even the battlefields of Yugoslavia. Only a day after his announcement, Clark told reporters on his campaign plane that if he had been in Congress last fall, he probably would have voted for the resolution authorizing President Bush to use force in Iraq. In a single sentence he had undermined the rationale for his whole candidacy—at least for those who saw him as Howard Dean with stars and a war record. Clark seems to have realized this himself, for the next day he reversed course. "I would never have voted for this war," he told the Associated Press. "I've gotten a very consistent record on this." His flip-flop delighted some of his rivals. "If it doesn't get any better than the first 24 hours," says a strategist for another Democrat, "he's going to be gone in two weeks." Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi, is warier. "The other campaigns make a mistake if they don't take him seriously," Trippi says. "It's going to take a month or two to know what to make of him."

What's most striking about the Clark boomlet is how little his supporters really know about the candidate in whom they have invested such sudden and stratospheric hopes—a man who didn't declare himself a Democrat until a few weeks ago and who says he isn't sure whether he voted for a Democrat for President before Bill Clinton ran. "He can save this goddam nation from self-destruction," declares New York Congressman Charles Rangel, who is arranging a meeting for Clark with the Congressional Black Caucus, possibly as early as this week. But Rangel acknowledges that he has never met Clark in person (they have talked on the phone) and didn't know a thing about Clark until he started catching the general's criticism of the Iraq war on cnn. The same was true of Sylvia Gillis, 57, an insurance broker who was among the 50 or so people who gathered to toast Clark's candidacy last Wednesday night at Frankie Z's Clark Bar in Chicago. "My mouth dropped open—a military man taking this antiwar position," she said. "He seemed honest, trustworthy, well versed and intellectual. My dream come true."

In fact, for Gillis and others like her who joined the draft-Clark movement that sprang up over the Internet this summer, there was something of a Field of Dreams quality to it all. They had built it; he had come. In that sense, the Clark blitz has less to do with the candidate than it does with the political landscape around him. Even as Democrats are beginning to believe for the first time that President Bush may actually be vulnerable, they are increasingly worried that they have not yet seen the Democrat who can beat him. Many are intrigued by the excitement and money that Dean has generated but are concerned that Dean is too dovish, too insubstantial, too cranky to survive the first presidential contest of the post-9/11 era. As for the rest of the field, it looks like a blur to most voters. "Frankly, none of them have gotten people very excited," says Eli Broad, a billionaire Los Angeles philanthropist who is one of the party's largest and most influential donors. "Wes Clark just might do it."

Adding luster to Clark's aura with dissatisfied Democrats is the perception that he is running with the benediction of Bill and Hillary Clinton. The former President has certainly stoked this impression; he has been talking up Clark's virtues in public and private for months, and a few weeks ago, he declared that his wife and Clark were the "two stars" of the Democratic Party. And no one could fail to notice that the Clark effort is salted with operatives from the campaigns of Clinton and Al Gore, like Mickey Kantor and Mark Fabiani.

The suppositions have left the Clintons in a difficult spot, say some of their associates. They don't want to say anything that makes them look as if they are distancing themselves from Clark, but they are uncomfortable with the perception that they favor him over any other candidate. Says an adviser to Hillary Clinton: "She just wants one of them to emerge, and just wants one of them to beat Bush." It appears that Hillary's husband knows which Democrat he wants to emerge: the junior Senator from New York. Two sources close to the Clintons have told TIME that the former President has been urging his wife in private to reconsider her pledge not to run for President in 2004 and pondering the most feasible way for her to back out of it.

For all the excitement he generated with his announcement, Clark's first days as a candidate were anything but smooth. Besides his waffle on the Iraq vote, he seemed uncertain about how to answer some straightforward questions that more experienced candidates handle with ease. When the Miami Herald asked his position on the death penalty, Clark endorsed a moratorium on executions, then pleaded, "Stop. Stop. I promised I wasn't going to take a strong position." His campaign first said he would participate with the nine others in this week's Democratic debate in New York, then said he wouldn't because he was committed to making a paid speech in Texas, then reversed again and said he would.

The mishaps did little to quell the private talk in Washington that Clark is a little bit, well, odd. Some saw a touch of Ross Perot in the man who implied in June that the Bush White House had pressured him to link 9/11 to Saddam Hussein, and then backtracked by saying the call had actually come from a Canadian think tank with access to "inside intelligence information." He also claimed the Administration had tried to get him fired from cnn. Clark insisted to TIME that he had never said that was anything more than a rumor.

On a post-announcement swing through Florida and Iowa, Clark deflected questions on issues that ranged from aids in Africa to the Patriot Act. But that did not dampen the enthusiasm of the supporters who greeted him wherever he went. "National security will be the primary topic during next year's election, and I believe he is the person who can beat George Bush," said Kate Lawrence, 52, a secretary from Dubuque who was part of the overflow crowd at a long-scheduled lecture Clark delivered Friday at the University of Iowa. A sampling of the audience's views suggests that Clark may be drawing supporters who might otherwise have gone to Dean or Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.

But it is fair to ask whether Clark will continue to appear so attractive as a candidate if things start looking up in Iraq. In his hour-long interview, Clark said he expects them to. "I want the United States to succeed," he said, adding that by the time the election rolls around, "I would be surprised if they hadn't achieved substantial troop reductions."

But a pacified Iraq, he insisted, does not change his rationale for running or his critique of the Bush Administration's foreign policy as both simplistic and destructive. "The election is about how to take the country forward," he said. "What's your real strategy for going after al-Qaeda now? Do you continue to take down states? Since we've gobbled up Iraq, why don't you send two divisions into Syria and take Syria out, and then drive over the pass to Beirut, sweep down into the Litani Valley and take out the Hizballah from the rear? It sounds logical, plain, neat and simple, but nothing ever is."

Clark is a smaller man than he appears to be on television, and more intense. As he talks, he leans forward on the front edge of his chair, elbows on knees, pulling out his buzzing Blackberry every few moments. (His campaign staff is threatening to take it away from him.) He is clearly at ease with some domestic policy issues—dissecting the Bush tax cut, for instance, and citing a string of figures to explain why he wants to retain the breaks for the middle class while eliminating the ones for high-income Americans. On other subjects—health care and education, for example—his positions have not yet congealed, though he promises they will soon. And he has a depth of knowledge that can surprise people. When asked about forestry issues during a small dinner two weeks ago in Los Angeles, he said, "Do you want me to describe it vis-a-vis Idaho or Utah or Montana?"

Clark may be new to politics, but he insists he has done a risk assessment like any prudent general. "It isn't like any other endeavor," he says. "It's enormously complicated. You're dealing with a lot of factors you don't understand." At one point when he was trying to decide whether to run, his wife Gert suggested that he put all his thoughts on paper. Clark tried but then discarded his notes. "I realized I couldn't quite get it down," he says. Is he too late? Too untested? Too new to the game? "You just basically have to announce," Clark says, "and take your chances."

—With reporting by Steve Barnes/ Little Rock, Simon Crittle/ New York, Kristin Kloberdanz/ Chicago, Betsy Rubiner/ Iowa City, Viveca Novak and Michael Weisskopf/ Washington and Jeffrey Ressner/ Los Angeles