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Retired Gen. Wesley Clark has taken a high-profile role, both on and off Capitol Hill, as a Democratic spokesman and foreign policy adviser, stoking speculation that he is planning another national campaign in 2008.
Clark has emerged as a regular presence on Capitol Hill in the last few months.
His allies paint him as a “go-to guy” for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) on foreign policy matters, pointing out that he has been repeatedly invited by the duo to address their respective caucuses on the handling of current military situations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jim Manley, a Reid spokesman, noted that Clark is a member of the the two leaders’ National Secu- rity Advisory Group.
“He is someone that Sen. Reid will continue to look to for advice,” Manley added.
Pelosi and Clark are personal friends and have known each other for years.
Clark has contacted a number of former Congressional backers of his 2004 campaign, including Reps. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.) and Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), although he has not formally broached a potential presidential race with them, according to informed sources.
He also testified April 6 before the House Armed Services Committee regarding the war in Iraq and the previous month addressed a closed door-briefing for Democratic Senate staff focused on national security. He will be back in D.C. on June 21 to host a fundraiser for a former aide running for Congress.
Outside of Washington, D.C., Clark is also working to keep himself in the news with a busy speaking schedule that will include a trip to the presidential proving ground of New Hampshire on June 12 where he will address the annual Flag Day Dinner of the Manchester City Democratic Committee.
All of this activity has created the impression in Democratic circles that Clark is actively weighing a bid, pending how the field ultimately shakes out.
Erick Mullen, a spokesman for Clark, said it was “ridiculous” to assume that the general was running for president but did little to deny that it is under consideration.
“All options are on the table,” Mullen said.
A second Clark candidacy seemed unimaginable when he dropped from the Democratic race on Feb. 11 of last year, just five months after formally announcing his candidacy.
Clark entered the contest as the alternative to then frontrunning Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. Clark opposed the war in Iraq but had the military credentials as a retired four-star general to give his stance heft.
But, Clark quickly stumbled when he waffled on whether he would have supported a Congressional resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, and then decided not to compete in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, zapping any momentum he might have hoped for.
Clark placed third in New Hampshire behind Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and Dean. A win in Oklahoma’s Feb. 3 primary kept his hopes alive but those hopes were dashed a week later when, banking on his appeal as a Southerner, he failed to win in either Virginia or Tennessee.
In spite of that spotty record as a first-time candidate, Chris Lehane, a senior adviser to the Clark campaign and veteran of Al Gore’s 2000 presidential effort, cast the 2004 race as a success.
“The guy went without ever playing in the major leagues and batted .300 his first time up,” Lehane said. “He needed to bat .400 to get the nomination.”
Rangel, who led the charge for Clark on Capitol Hill, said he has spoken with the general approximately six times since the campaign ended last year.
“I’m convinced we would have won with him,” Rangel said. “On the war he had a much better message than most of our candidates.”
Clark faces two serious hurdles as he contemplates a return run for president, neither of which existed in 2004.
The first is that the 2008 Democratic field seems likely to include New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Clark is close to the Clintons and a number of top officials in his 2004 campaign also served in President Bill Clinton’s administration.
With polls showing Sen. Clinton comfortably ahead of the other Democratic candidates, there is some sense that Clark may have already lost his place in the race.
Rangel, who was the originator of the idea that Clinton run for Senate in New York in 2000, insisted that if the Iraq war and national security remain the dominant issues in 2008, Clark still has significant appeal as a candidate regardless of who else is in the field.
“If that situation was the same now, I think he would have been the most-attractive candidate, having not voted for the war as Hillary Clinton did,” Rangel said.
Lehane was more measured about Clark’s prospects, suggesting that he should have an “enormous role in the party that can manifest itself in any numbers of ways.
“I’ve always thought a Clinton-Clark ticket had a nice ring to it,” Lehane said.
Perhaps as troublesome to Clark as the fact that Clinton is looming over the race is his decision to bypass the Iowa caucuses in 2004.
Clark, who was the last candidate to join the race, made a strategic choice to skip the Jan. 19 caucuses because of a belief that to win required an organization he would not be able to assemble in such a short period of time.
That decision confounded a number of politicians and party strategists, including Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin (D).
Harkin hosted Clark in October 2003 for a town hall event in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and reportedly came away extremely impressed, according to informed sources. Harkin was mulling endorsing Clark when the general announced he would not compete in Iowa, the sources added.
Jeff Link, a longtime Iowa strategist and Harkin confidant, said there were “high hopes” for Clark in the state, but acknowledged his decision to back out of the caucuses could have ramifications should he run again.
“When you take away someone’s opportunity to be for you, that sticks with voters,” said Link.
Vanessa Weaver, who served as deputy campaign manager for Clark, said the general was “very favorably regarded” in Iowa, adding: “I see Iowa as open for just about anybody but especially for Wes.”
The key to a resurrection of Clark’s image in the Hawkeye State, according to Link, is “time on task,” meaning he needs to spend many hours in the state if he hopes to be competitive.
“It will be part of every story his first few trips” to the state, said Link. “It is easy to deal with, but you have to deal with it.”