LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Wesley Clark, the retired general with a four-star military resume but no political experience, decided today to become the 10th Democratic presidential candidate, officials close to him said.
"We'll make an announcement in Little Rock tomorrow," Clark told The Associated Press. He didn't reveal his decision, but said with a smile, "We're tremendously excited."
Officials close to the campaign, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Clark planned to announce his entry at 1 p.m. EDT in the Arkansas capital.
Clark's decision came as Democratic operatives from around the country gathered at his small, low-slung brick headquarters on the banks of the Arkansas river to discuss strategy for mounting a late-starting presidential campaign.
One hurdle will be his lack of political experience. Asked if he was ready to start telling Americans his positions on domestic policy, few of which he's ever revealed, Clark said, "I'll do my best, but there will be a lot of things that I don't know right away."
"I want to learn," he said outside his headquarters between meetings. "I've got a whole period of time. I've got to go around America. I want to talk to people about the issues."
Clark's decision stole some limelight from John Edwards, the North Carolina senator who formally announced his presidential candidacy after months of campaigning. The timing underscored Clark's potential to shake up the tight Democratic campaign.
Clark's fledgling political team is drawn heavily from the political networks of former President Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore. The advisers include Mark Fabiani, who served as spokesman for former Vice President Al Gore's 2000 campaign; Ron Klain, a strategist in Al Gore's 2000 campaign; Washington lawyer Bill Oldaker; Vanessa Weaver, a Clinton appointee; Skip Rutherford, a Clinton fund-raiser who lives here; George Bruno, a New Hampshire activist; and Peter Knight, a Washington lobbyist and longtime Gore fund-raiser. Bruce Lindsey, former White House aide and now an Arkansas lawyer, also backs Clark.
Clinton had urged Clark to enter the race, but neither he nor Gore is expected to take sides in the primary fight.
Clark's team was exploring several venues in Little Rock for an announcement, including a park named for World War II Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a Little Rock native. This site would underscore what Clark's advisers consider his greatest strength: his longtime military background.
Clark greeted reporters with a "good morning," as he climbed into a two-seat sports car and left his headquarters. Some of his aides had already gathered for the meeting, including Fabiani and Rutherford. Others, including Klain and Bruno, were still making their way to the Arkansas capital.
Clark, 58, believes his four-star military service would counter Bush's political advantage as a wartime commander in chief, friends say. The retired general has been critical of the Iraq war and Bush's postwar efforts, positions that would put him alongside announced candidates Howard Dean, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio as the most vocal anti-war candidates.
It would be a long-shot bid.
Just four months before voting begins, Clark would be competing against candidates who have had months to raise money, build organizations in key states and recruit the party's top political talent. He has no political experience, and a spotty voting record.
County records show that Clark registered to vote here in 2002, casting a ballot in the Democratic primary then voted in the general election. Before 2002, Clark said he was registered in nearby Saline County while serving in the military but acknowledged "sometimes I didn't make it" to vote.
"I remember a couple of tomes in the military when the ballot either got there late or I wasn't there when the ballot arrived," he said.
Clark said there's still room and time for another White House campaign.
"It's not too late to get in the race if I decide to run," he said.
The strategists assembled in Little Rock today are among the party's best. An Internet-fueled draft-Clark movement has developed the seeds of a campaign organization and more than $1 million in pledges.
Clark's team urged supporters from the draft Clark committees to travel to Little Rock for the announcement.
Clark's resume is formidable — Rhodes scholar, first in his 1966 class at West Point, White House fellow, head of the U.S. Southern Command and NATO commander during the 1999 campaign in Kosovo.
Clark's local office said no announcement was planned for Monday or Tuesday but it was noncommittal about the rest of the week as supporters anxiously awaited his decision.
Nearly 12 years after Clinton announced his first campaign, Arkansans were excited at the prospect of backing another favorite son.
Jean Wallace, a classmate of Clark's from grammar school, has organized Warriors for Wes, a group of Clark classmates named after the mascot at their alma mater, Hall High School. She said the supporters were ready to travel the country to tout Clark's candidacy the way "Friends of Bill" organizations crisscrossed the country campaigning for Clinton.
"We are eagerly awaiting an announcement very shortly. There are thousands of people across the country doing the same thing, people who have put their hearts and time and resources into this effort," Jeff Dailey, spokesman for Draft Clark for President 2004, said.
The group, one of several Draft Clark groups, boasts of 166 coordinators in 50 states.
"In New Hampshire, there are many people ready to move out if they're given the green light," said Bruno, one of Clinton's earlier backers in the key primary voting state.
Clark is scheduled to deliver a speech at the University of Iowa on Sept. 19.
Associated Press Writers James Jefferson and Caryn Rousseau contributed to this report.