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Draft Clark contingent hopes candidacy is near

DOVER, N.H. -- In theory, this is when it all comes together, the wishful thinking, the hours of work. Across the country, volunteers have spent months begging retired General Wesley K. Clark to run for president. They've set up tidy offices and skeletal field operations, staged events and visibilities, collected thousands of online petitions. And now, it looks as though it might be paying off.

Might.

Clark, the retired four-star general who headed NATO's 1999 operations in Kosovo, is still coy about whether he'll enter the Democratic fray. He says he'll make a decision within weeks. And some of his devoted fans feel confident, at last.

"It's the way that he carries himself on television," said Tyrus Gordon, 25, the Massachusetts coordinator of Draft Clark 2004, one of several national groups that have organized on Clark's behalf. "He gives no reason at all to believe that he isn't."

These are heady times for members of the Draft Clark movement, who believe Clark is what the Democratic Party needs: a general, to offset the old saw that Democrats can't talk convincingly about defense; a Little Rock, Ark., native for Southern appeal; a telegenic straight-shooter who works the talk show circuit with blunt criticism of the Bush administration.

But it's a precarious moment, too, for the volunteers and the would-be candidate himself. If Clark enters the race, everything changes. A multiheaded beast born on the Internet becomes a top-down structure, with a staff that could say "no." And Clark trades a long and flattering flirtation for the bruising realities of a late-entry campaign.

It would be a big step, for someone enjoying the freedom of postmilitary life, his second career as a consultant, corporate board member, and television analyst. "I like schlepping my own bags and driving my own car and carrying my own cellphone," Clark said by telephone from Washington.

Then again, he said, he could handle the conversion: "I had a huge staff in NATO. I had no problem then."

It's the sort of statement that sets off excitement among Draft Clark volunteers, who by now are accustomed to reading the tea leaves in Clark's newspaper quotes and TV appearances. But a bigger question might be whether he could parlay a growing buzz into a viable primary bid. An independent Zogby poll of likely Democratic New Hampshire primary voters, released last week, put him at 2 percent.

Still, the untested Clark has "succeeded in putting himself in the position of the last unopened Christmas present," said Peter Hoe Burling, the Democratic leader of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, who is supporting Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.

"After a while, after we've all run the new trucks and toys around the floor," Burling said, "we all want to see what's in that last box."

What's best known about Clark are his statements on foreign policy: He has blasted the Bush administration for alienating allies and fixating on Iraq at the expense of other trouble spots. Administration leaders have struck back, saying Clark and other retired-military critics are jeopardizing soldiers' morale. Clark makes no apologies: "I've been outspoken, but I've been moderate in what I've said . . . I've just called it like I've seen it."

Lately, Clark hasn't shied from staking out domestic positions, either.

His social views run liberal: He supports abortion rights, affirmative action, and Vermont-style civil unions for gay couples. On questions about health care and education issues, he points to his career in the military, where "we treat people well and we look after them as individuals."

In person, the 58-year-old Clark cuts an impressive figure, said Burling, who met the general at a Manchester luncheon in May. But he questions whether Clark has time to gain a fund-raising edge or lure voters away from the other nine contenders. He also wonders whether Clark is positioning himself, instead, as a vice presidential nominee.

It isn't too late, insists George Bruno, the former New Hampshire Democratic chairman who has hosted Clark's visits to the Granite State, as far back as September 2001.

Polls still reflect large numbers of undecided voters, Bruno said. And because there won't be a Republican primary contest this year, independent and Republican voters might change their registrations to take part in the Democratic primary.

"They are a large party of moderate voters," Bruno said, "and the kind of people that would have a high interest in a candidacy by General Clark."

And to uncommitted voters, Clark offers a made-to-order candidate profile, Bruno said. "I think he has tremendous intellectual capacity, like a Bill Clinton," he said. "He has a certain boldness that John McCain has. He evokes, I think, the same kind of enthusiasm that we see in Howard Dean right now. He has a resume and qualifications that are second-to-none -- right up there with Colin Powell."

It is a perspective many Draft Clark leaders seem to share. They often speak of Clark with longing and an air of wish-fulfillment. This is, after all, a Rhodes Scholar who finished first in his West Point class, a man whose NATO title was supreme commander, and whose background of heroics can seem too good to be true. The time he helped clinch a state high school championship by swimming the first and last legs of the relay. The time he rappelled down a mountain outside Sarajevo, in a territory riddled with Serbian snipers, to try to rescue colleagues who crashed in an armored personnel carrier.

"Every time we talk to somebody, we hear something else about this guy that makes him seem more like Superman," said Josh Margulies, 33, a Republican and cofounder of Washington-based Draft Wesley Clark, who had a pro-Clark epiphany -- "a West Wing moment," he calls it -- while watching war coverage in the spring.

New Hampshire volunteer Susan Putney also discovered Clark on television, then met other supporters in discussion groups online. Soon, a cyberbuzz became an Internet petition, which has registered some 30,000 would-be Clark voters. Eventually, it developed a fund-raising component and started launching offline ventures. In late spring, Draft Clark supporters ran a radio ad in New Hampshire titled "Dream Candidate."

The road hasn't always been smooth.

This summer, two branches of the movement, disagreeing on how to proceed, split. Draft Wesley Clark, run by Margulies and his brother-in-law, John Hlinko, has concentrated on publicity and fund-raising drives. They raised more than $1,000 by auctioning a "dinner for four" on eBay, featured Army MREs and Clark Bars, and commissioned a Zogby poll that did a "blind bio" comparison, in which Clark's profile beat Bush's, 49 percent to 40 percent.

Draft Clark 2004, meanwhile, has opened field offices in Little Rock and Dover, collected a string of Democratic political veterans -- including some Clinton-Gore and Democratic National Committee alumni -- and developed 180 nascent field operations in 50 states. The idea, Putney said, was to "build a structure that was ready to fund-raise when the time was right. We're turning over an organization; he will not be starting from ground zero."

If he starts at all, of course. Which is why Draft Clark supporters -- who have no direct line of contact with the would-be candidate -- are still engaged in last-minute persuasion. They scour the news to see whether he's made any decisions. They show up with signs and banners at his public appearances and outside television studios where he's scheduled to be a talking head.

"It's an astonishingly powerful force," said Clark, who says the volunteers have made him think. "Because of what they're doing, I am seriously considering this."

As Labor Day approached, Clark said he was still deciding, looking at his future "from every angle." For Draft Clark leaders, that meant more of the same: wondering, waiting, and looking for a sign.

"Every time he's on TV, everybody's kind of abuzz with anticipation," said Gordon, the Massachusetts volunteer. "Oh, could this be it? Could this be it?"

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