We just may have a real race for the presidency in 2004 after all.
While President Bush's standing in the polls has been slipping slightly in the face of a lazy economy and troubles in Iraq, no Democratic challenger has so far leapt out of the pack at this early stage to cause serious tremors in the White House.
Enter Gen. Wesley Clark. Pluses: career soldier first in his class at West Point, Rhodes scholar, wounded in Vietnam, articulate, a lot of television exposure during the Iraq war. Downside: never been elected to anything in his life and never been in a political campaign outside the Army. Of course, neither had Dwight D. Eisenhower, who did get elected president, or Colin Powell, who probably could have been.
We have a long way to go, and Clark has yet to be tested in the exhausting, bone-crunching, inquisitorial crucible into which we cast all those who aspire to lead the most powerful country in the world. The Washington press corps will rough him up for his lack of expertise in domestic politics.
But he is hailed as a fresh face in the campaign, with military credentials that would enable him to go toe-to-toe with Bush in the areas of national security and foreign policy. Ordinarily, a presidential election campaign is not won on foreign policy. This time, when we are in a war with foreign terrorists, it could be lost on it.
The presidential election campaign is an extraordinary process in which a Democratic contender who is to be successful must capture the left wing of his or her party to become the candidate and then the political center of the nation to win the presidency. Conversely, a Republican contender must capture the right wing of his or her party to become the candidate and then the political center of the country to become president.
Hitherto, the nine previously announced Democratic presidential candidates (until Clark made it 10) have seemed unable to master this technique of developing an appeal to both left and center.
Howard Dean, ex-governor of Vermont, has emerged as the sweetheart of the liberal left, seemingly outpacing such earlier touted candidates as John Kerry and Joe Lieberman. Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran wounded in action, is finding it hard to shed his patrician New England image despite arriving at campaign rallies on a Harley-Davidson. Lieberman, who in the last presidential election often seemed to garner more public affection as Al Gore's running mate than did Gore, somehow has not caught fire this time around.
In pumping millions into Dean's campaign, many political observers think the Democrats are bent on political suicide, opting for a man who pleases their liberal convictions but who could not gain the votes of the political center necessary to carry the party to victory in the White House.
Clark thus offers himself as an alternative, a Southerner, and conceivably someone who could capture political centrists turned off by Dean's proudly proclaimed liberalism. A recent Newsweek poll has him already modestly leading the Democratic field.
By American standards, where the election campaign is still to go on for another 12 tortuous months, Clark is a latecomer. He has no organization, and nobody knows how much funding. What he does seem to have is the expertise and support of Bill and Hillary Clinton and a number of their past political operatives. Various conspiratorial theories are advanced to explain this support. One is that Clark is being positioned to run as a vice-presidential candidate in Hillary Clinton's bid for the presidency in 2008.
Another, which seems less likely, is that a Hillary-Clark ticket could yet emerge for 2004 should things go really bad for Bush. Some of Clark's military colleagues, citing his longtime ambition, are less generous than others. But among many there is widespread respect for his intellect and leadership qualities.
One retired general I talked to this weekend, a former Rhodes scholar like Clark, actually taught him as a cadet at West Point and supervised him when he later returned to teach courses there. Interestingly, Clark taught government and politics. Said the general:
"He was a star on the West Point debating team, which was always one, two or three on the college circuit. He'll be a match for anybody in debate. He's smart enough to know what he doesn't know. He'll surround himself with very smart advisers on domestic politics."
We shall see.
John Hughes is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News. He is a former editor of the Christian Science Monitor, which syndicates this column. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org