Wesley Clark Announces ... Finally

Amid red, white and blue balloons and recycled Draft Clark signs, Wesley Clark announced his run for the White House. "My name is Wes Clark. I am from Little Rock, Arkansas. And I’m here to announce that I intend to seek the presidency of the United States of America," he told a crowd of about 1,000 supporters at a boys and girls club here.

It was about time, as many people were tiring of Clark's indecisiveness while he showed up on as many television shows as possible without even declaring a political party. On a sunny warm fall day in the political landscape owned by Bill Clinton, the coy general, who officially declared himself a Democrat only two weeks ago, became the hottest name in politics.

Clark joins an already crowded field of nine Democrats, but politicos say he brings something new to the table. He knows his way around international issues. He is a wizard about military issues. And he's telegenic -- a critical component of any campaign in a media obsessed world.

But the retired four-star Army general possesses no governing experience nor has he ever been on a campaign trail. The consequences of inexperience are harsh for a newbie. While playing war games is no easy task, neither is directing national policy or shaking thousands of hands all day.

Possibly Clark can learn from the experienced tutors who are quickly securing the perimeter around him. This week, a flood of former Clintonites flew into Little Rock to teach Clark the ropes of a successful campaign. Among the Clinton and Gore crew are Gore spokesman Mark Fabiani, Gore's chief of staff Ron Klain, former Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor; former Gore field director Donnie Fowler; Washington attorneys Ron Klain and Bill Oldaker; New Hampshire activist and Clinton friend George Bruno; Clinton appointee Vanessa Weaver and Eli Segal, former head of AmeriCorps.

Powerful advertising man Skip Rutherford, a Clinton fundraiser and president of the Clinton Foundation that oversees the construction of the Clinton Library in Little Rock, also attended the campaign meeting. His attendance signaled to some that Clinton was much more involved in this campaign than appears apparent.

This influence became much clearer on Wednesday as the former president's inner circle organized the artificial hoopla and former White House staffers and interns fanned out to dispense bottles of water, sign up volunteers and handle media. The theme that resonated: Don't Stop Thinking About Yesterday.

The Clinton connection that Al Gore tried so hard to keep at a distance in 2000 seems to be closer than ever in the earliest stage of a Clark campaign. Certainly, former Gore allies know how to wage a war against Bush, hoping, perhaps, for a landslide victory by lining up with a general who knows how to strategize.

"I think the active backing from a number of former Clinton supporters is a net advantage for Clark," said Peverill Squire, a political scientist professor at the University of Iowa. "Clark has never run for office before and surrounding himself with people who have been associated with winning campaigns is one route to overcoming his inexperience. They also provide him with a host of contacts and ties to major figures in the Democratic party that most outsider candidates could never attain."

A popular button wore by supporters was "When Clinton Lied, Nobody Died." Some signs read "Bye-Bye Bush" and "Wes Wing." But while part of the crafted Clark message bashed candidate George W. Bush, the remainder seemed intent on appearing intelligent and diplomatic, not nearly as feisty as Howard Dean's tone.

As Clark said in his speech, "We're going to ask those hard questions, my friends, and ask not in bickery or attacks ... we're going to seek out the facts, to search for the causes, reach to the very essence of our democracy." It's hard to distinguish Dean's anti-war message from Clark's. Perhaps the myth is there is no anti-war message but rather simply a differing perception fueled by each candidate. Dean opposed going to Iraq. Clark, who led the 1999 NATO campaign against Yugoslavia as the allied supreme commander of NATO, was outspoken in his opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Clark's big worry was the absence of an international coalition. Dean touts the same concerns.

Dean is seen as anti-war while Clark is perceived as a GI Joe warrior, but they share the same stance. They both say that the most important aspect facing the United States as a superpower is to use its might appropriately. Dean and Clark also say that the United states must respect its allies and work with them -- not around them. Yet, Clark's announcement today appeared to herald a new anti-war candidate on the scene, the perfect answer for those who keep trying to suggest that Dean plays far too left, despite his centrist positions and budget balancing in Vermont,.,

They are very alike, but despite their similarities these two candidates are considered very opposite. That's because they are not so much different as their supporters are. Anti-war folks and and a wide range of liberals like Dean. Moderates, including lots of service people -- military, veterans and Americorps kids -- take Clark's centrist view. As one fan said in the crowd, "He's a Southern Democrat's dream come true."

Maybe, but he's no Bill Clinton. And Tuesday was not the second coming of a Clinton clone. While Clark's speech talked about America, the passion seemed lacking. Clark even read chunks of it and failed to connect with a crowd as Clinton can. Afterwards, many in the crowd left without shaking the general's hand -- in contrast to a Clinton rally, where people still stand in line for hours to shake the former president's hand.

And even Clark's theme song at the end of the speech seemed odd -- Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." An aide said the song was picked to make Clark look "progressive." Or perhaps it's a war call to let Dean know he's coming after his base.

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