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Tuesday | May 27, 2003

Will Clark join the race?

The Democratic field seeking the presidential nomination is almost set. There is one wildcard left in this game -- will Gen. Wesley Clark join the race? The short answer -- no one knows, probably not even Clark himself.

People I talk to "in the know" continue to maintain the party line -- that Clark is 50/50 on a race. Those percentages seemed to wane after the Iraqi war. For one, word was that Clark would wait until after the war to announce his intentions. The war passed and no announcement was made.

Strike one.

Then Clark was named Chairman of the Board of WaveCrest -- a company building a clean hydrogen powered engine. While being a COB is not necessarily a full-time job, it definitely suggested Clark would try and cash in his military career and CNN fame to make serious money in the private sector.

Strike two.

But the third pitch never came. Clark called a metaphorical time out, and has been in a holding pattern since.

Not that he's been dormant. He's been working events in New Hapshire and other places via his Leadership for America organization (a tool often used by potential candidates to raise money and profile). And when confronted with the repeated question, "Will you run for president?", he answers quite clearly in the present tense: "I am not a candidate."

So what is going on? Clark might stay coy in order to keep the sort of media attention only a potential candidate can enjoy. Where he to decisively announce he was not a candidate, he would join Al Gore in the "irrelevant" column. And it's clear Clark enjoys the media attention. He has serious, legitimate ideas, and has a deep committment to public service. And he genuinely wants to rescue our great nation from the ravages of the Bush cabal.

But those ideas can only go so far, and ultimately, unless he plans on launching a new liberal think tank (not a bad idea...), Clark will have to make a decision. If he wants to continue to be heard, then a run is all but necessary.

If that were all, then I would suggest that Clark would spare his family the ordeal of a run and content himself in the private sector. But the reality is that many Democrats are underwhelmed by the current crop of contenders. Even Dean, who is furiously picking up institutional support (yes, even many who are "super delegates") is still viewed with a great deal of suspicion. My sources (yes, I've got them) indicate that there is a great deal of pressure within the party establishment to push Clark into the race, playing the role of savior for a party divided.

For this strategy to work, Clark would have to postpone any announcement until later this year, between August and early November. A late entry would allow Clark to survive on less money while avoiding the intra-party early mudslinging. His entry would garner immediate media attention, and if played right (like I said, "savior of a Democratic Party divided"), it could translate into solid support heading into the primary season. And the dirtier the primaries got, the better Clark would look.

Working against such a run would be money and organization.

A late start (and insurgent campaign, a la Dean) would spare Clark the need to raise much money, and word is that Clinton's vaunted fundraising machine would step to support a Clark candidacy. Money doesn't appear to be the biggest hurdle.

Organization, on the other hand, is a different matter. The nine candidacies vying for the nomination have dried up the political talent pool, or so it would seem. While many smart campaign people still abound (Garry South, for one), it's clear that the most highly regarded teams are already accounted for.

Except for one -- the people behind Bill Clinton. Now I have heard nothing to suggest that Clinton's people (like Begala or the Rajin' Cajun) would consider a reunion tour for another Arkansas native, but it is premature to suggest that organization would be a prohibitive impediment to a Clark run.

Ultimately, a Clark run would stem from a call to duty. If enough people pushed for a candidacy, both at the grassroots and party establishment levels, then his strong sense of duty would compell him to run.

That call to duty will become stronger if 1) no candidate can emerge a clear frontrunner by the fall, and 2) if the race decends into indiscriminate mudslinging. Remember, Clark's chances would hinge on his ability to sell himself as a "savior". A relatively clean primary season with one or two clear and electable frontrunners would negate any impetus for a run and relegate him to the top vice presidential option (not a bad place to be).

So will he run? My sources close to Clark are probably right -- it's most likely a 50/50 proposition, but ultimately his choice will be based on factors outside of his control. He's not ego driven (otherwise he'd be in the race by now). Rather, he's motivated by duty.

The question is thus, will he be compelled to run? We won't know until much later this year.

Posted May 27, 2003 12:37 AM | Comments (121)


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