Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark's decision to enter the 2004 presidential race this week thrilled “Draft Clark” Democrats and some party elders, but it produced a collective groan at the campaign headquarters of the other Democratic candidates, who have been trying to distinguish themselves in an already crowded field.
The official line from Mr. Clark's competitors was nearly identical. They welcomed his entry into the fray, while noting he has yet to offer many specific policy proposals. But off the record, several staffers from opposing campaigns acknowledged Mr. Clark was going to hurt their candidates.
Mr. Clark already has enlisted powerful allies. Former President Bill Clinton and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton encouraged him to run, and aides from the former president's administration flocked to Mr. Clark's campaign last week, giving him instant credibility. Mr. Clark is expected to collect endorsements from more than a dozen Democratic members of Congress as well.
The front-page attention generated by Mr. Clark's announcement underscores how unsettled the race remains only four months before voters start choosing delegates in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19 and the first state primary in New Hampshire on Jan. 27.
Recent polls show most Democratic and independent voters are undecided. Prized endorsements of traditional Democratic groups, including that of the 13-million member AFL-CIO, are still up for grabs.
Labor support is especially important in getting voters to attend the caucuses in Iowa, and unions in the state are split at the moment. Peverill Squire, professor of political science at University of Iowa, said the leadership is leaning toward Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt while many rank-and-file members support former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
Mr. Clark has never publicly addressed many of organized labor's key issues, such as limiting trade or raising the minimum wage.
Mr. Clark faces the difficult task of quickly building a campaign organization and raising money, especially in the early primary states, which most of the candidates have been doing for months.
In New Hampshire, many prominent Democrats already have made their endorsements.
“Obviously [Mr. Clark] will not have the same sort of organization in place that other candidates ... have been able to assemble,” Mr. Squire said.
“But he has a unique record to bring to the race and because of that he may be able to get more attention than other candidates who have been scrambling to get anybody to notice them,” he said.
Republicans already are attacking Mr. Clark. Some are raising questions about his forced retirement from the Army in 2000, following political disputes over his conduct of the war in Kosovo.
And his association with the Clintons could be as much of a minus as a plus for his campaign. In September, the conservative Weekly Standard billed Mr. Clark as “another slippery candidate from Arkansas.”
No matter what kind of obstacles Mr. Clark faces, he is certain to draw attention and support from other leading candidates.
“The two big unknowns are, can [Mr. Clark] raise money to go with what appears to be a very professional team and [are] the media going to give sustained attention to him and give him the kind of momentum that they generated for Dean last spring,” said Linda L. Fowler, a professor of government and director of Dartmouth College's Rockefeller Center.
“And if the answer to those questions is yes, then he is a lot of trouble for everybody....”
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Maeve Reston is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.