NATO Commander May Enter Presidential Race

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:29pm EDT

( - If former NATO Supreme Commander Wesley Clark chooses to run for president on the Democratic Party ticket, he already possesses strong defense and foreign policy credentials, but skeptics say his lack of experience in elected office and his as-yet-unknown position on core Democratic issues would be his weak points.

The 57-year-old Clark, now an investment banker in Arkansas, has been exploring the possibility of launching a campaign for the 2004 presidential election, going so far as to spend time schmoozing with big Democratic donors as well as voters in first-in-the-nation primary state New Hampshire.

Some Democrats are enthusiastic about adding Clark's resume to the field of candidates, even if Clark himself stands little chance of winning the party's nomination.

After all, Americans consistently tell pollsters that Republicans are better suited to handle defense and foreign policy issues. And Clark is a former Rhodes scholar, Vietnam veteran, and was NATO supreme allied commander in Europe from 1997 to 2000.

"He brings tremendous credibility and experience with national security issues that are very much at the forefront of public debate right now," said Democratic strategist Mark Mellman. And his experience in the military with budget, racial and social issues would also be a plus, Mellman added.

"There's no question that his participation is going to be greatly welcomed," he said.

But, said Mellman, even though the Democratic field is still wide open, "the reality is having not been in the political process before is something of a disadvantage for him, so it may be difficult for him to get the nomination."

Despite Clark's credentials, Ron Faucheux, editor-in-chief of Campaigns and Elections magazine, cautions that no Democratic candidate is likely to win crossover Republican votes.

"I don't think any of these candidates are going to bring over any Republican voters," said Faucheux. "The overwhelming majority of Republican voters are solidly in President Bush's camp, and I suspect they will stay there unless there's some big problem in November 2004, which is always possible.

"But as it stands now, for a Democrat to win, they have to win with a strong Democratic base turn out, and they have to do well with independent voters," he said.

If Clark enters the race, he would face other likely candidates, Sens. Joe Lieberman (Connecticut), John Kerry (Massachusetts), John Edwards (North Carolina), Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (South Dakota), House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (Missouri), Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, and maybe even black activist Al Sharpton.

Pollsters have not even begun polling Clark's name. In a recent Gallup poll of adults following 2000 nominee Al Gore's decision not to run again, Lieberman was most preferred at 25 percent, followed by Kerry at 21 percent, Gephardt at 14 percent, Daschle at 10 percent, and the rest of the field in single digits.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) topped the hypothetical list with around 40 percent support, though she has said she has no plans to run for the presidency in 2004.

Andy Smith of the University of New Hampshire's Survey Center says that Clark is among the short list of likely candidates who are starting to acquaint themselves with party activists in New Hampshire.

"He was very good. He's very smooth. He's very articulate, well-spoken; he understands a whole range of topics," said Smith.

But it's Kerry who has the edge in New Hampshire right now because he has high, positive name ID from his frequent coverage on Boston television stations, which dominate New Hampshire.

"Don't discount that as an advantage, the fact that people kind of like you, they don't say anything about you," said Smith. "That's a huge advantage, that your name is known and it's not known negatively."

But Faucheux believes it's Hillary who would fair best with Democrats nationally and be the instant frontrunner.

"I think if she ran she could win the nomination," he said.

"If she can get 80 percent of the black vote in Democratic primaries and 50 percent of the white women, she wouldn't need any white males to vote for her in the Democratic primaries and could still win most of them. And even if she got a small percentage of white males, she would win almost every primary in the country," Faucheux said.

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