Drafting the General

A group of about 100 people gathered recently on a Monday night in Little Rock to eat chips and dip and discuss their shared passion -- General Wesley K. Clark. The bottom line among the group: They want him as their next president.

Little Rock is significant because this is the place the former allied commander for NATO calls home. Clark was born in Chicago, but grew up in Little Rock from age 4 until he graduated from high school. He returned in 2001, after West Point and a storied military career. This city, which watched Bill Clinton rise to global prominence, has recently become ground zero for the nationwide effort to recruit Clark for a White House run. Other "Draft Clark" groups throughout the country existed long before this Arkansas group, but this is the one that matters the most now.

Jeff Dailey, the son of Little Rock's mayor and a former Clinton staffer, created Arkansans for Clark, an online petition for Clark supporter's that will aid in setting up county committees in all 75 of the state's counties. That group is working in tandem with the Draft Clark 2004 movement, which is now in 42 states with more than 100 chapters.

"General Clark has what it takes to ask Bush the tough questions, to really give Democrats a strong edge," says Dailey, who hopped on the Clark bandwagon after hearing him speak. "He is the kind of leader we need to deal with international and national issues, brilliant and he knows the issues. We are pushing forward and plan to present General Clark with the petitions. "

The Draft Clark 2004 movement feels so strongly about the general's chances for a presidential run that they plan to move their national headquarters to downtown Little Rock in the next few days. Clark supporters from around the country plan to descend on the city and work like a full-fledged campaign to convince the general to run.

A show of loyalty like this in the general's backyard could go a long way toward convincing Clark to plunge into the already flooded field of nine Democrats. Maybe 10, if Al Gore decides to re-enter the fray. The big question: Is Clark a Democrat?

Clark has yet to declare a party and plays coy when asked. Most of his close associates insist he is a Democrat because he bashes George W. Bush. His record, which has been culled together from previous interviews to create a presidential candidate dossier, leans left of center. He's pro-affirmative action and pro-choice. He is against drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge and sits on the board of Wavecrest Laboratories, a Virginia-based technology company that has developed a breakthrough electric propulsion system that transforms electrical energy into mechanical motion.

Since exiting NATO, Clark has pontificated around the country about global affairs, appeared regularly as a military analyst on CNN, worked for Little Rock's Stephens Inc., the largest brokerage house off Wall Street, and traveled the world attending conferences and accepting awards. He has also launched his own Website for Americans to talk about critical issues, which serves as the perfect outlet to create a platform and gain media exposure. In September, Clark's new book about the war in Iraq and terrorism hits the shelves, a surefire boost for his name recognition.

Recently on National Public Radio, Clark said that he is seriously considering throwing his hat in the ring for president. He still dodges party affiliation, but his admitted interest in running erodes any previous thoughts that Clark only craved media attention so that he could shore up support as a vice-presidential candidate. Wrong-o. Any former general accustomed to controlling troops and leading European counties doesn't want to hang in the shadow of John Kerry or Joe Lieberman. No, Clark plans to lead his own campaign if it isn't too late for battle.

Clark has said that the one question Americans should ask themselves in 2004 is: Do you feel safer now than four years ago? That answer, he says, is probably no, regardless of the creation of Homeland Security Department and its efforts to step up security in this country. With an experienced military man in the mix, Democrats get a strong inoculation against their weakness on defense issues. Bush can't accuse Clark of being soft on the military, especially since Bush went AWOL from his Guard unit in Alabama. Clark offers Democrats a rare chance to have more credibility on the military than the Republicans, even against a sitting president who has gotten us into two wars.

The general's critics say he should forgo the games about party affiliation and pick one if he wants to be considered a serious politician. They also say he should also have jumped in the race months ago, and it's really too late now. Clark will be incredibly behind in raising money. Most candidates have also hired experienced staff who know the intricacies of Iowa and New Hampshire. Supporters point to Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign when the then-Arkansas governor entered the race in October.

But maybe Clark's grand plan -- slowly building an army of loyal, hard-working supporters from coast-to-coast to win the war against Bush -- is working. They write letters, hold Meet Ups -- the new online method to gain supporters -- and recruit other like-minded individuals to sign petitions to persuade Clark to run. This support keeps the media's attention and lands Clark on the Sunday morning shows.

In Little Rock, Clark confidants say that he told them several months ago he wouldn't run for president unless he was drafted. His request has definitely become reality. Every day more people log on and sign up to work for a man they know little about. That, says many, is what lures them to Clark, a mystery man without the taint of party politics.

Still, Clinton loyalists in Arkansas aren't so sure they want another Arkansan for president. Such a race will certainly serve as competition for the Clinton political legacy in this Southern state that hails its native son as a political god. Rumors in some circles also bubble that a Clark run, and if by fluke a win, hinders Hillary Rodham Clinton's chance for a clear shot in 2008.

Clark tells aides he will make a decision about the future before Labor Day. The Draft Clark groups plan to descend on Little Rock with boxes of petitions in August. They hope their innovative grassroots efforts will convince a man with no political experience to chalk one up for his country.

Suzi Parker is an Arkansas journalist. Her work frequently appears in The Economist and US News and World Report. She's the author of the upcoming "Sex in the South" (Justin Charles & Co.)

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