Wes Clark Plays Field As '08 Hopes Fade

As of Feb. 2, retired Gen. Wesley Clark seemed to be running for president.

"I think we need a president who understands that to project strength and earn respect is to be strong and show respect," he told the Democratic National Committee's Winter Meeting. The meeting was a cattle call at which he spoke along with nine other Democrats who were all actually running, and Clark did seem to be talking about himself.

But in the months since then, any sense of momentum behind his still-undeclared candidacy has seemed to vanish without a trace.

"I haven't said I won't run," Clark told Politico.com. "I think about running every single day."

But in the meantime, he's been acting more like a Democratic Party wise man than a candidate in his own right, to the degree that he's offered private advice in recent weeks to potential rivals. He's spoken in recent weeks to leading presidential candidates, said Clark spokesman Erick Mullen.

"It's a regular dialogue with most of these candidates about war and diplomacy," said Mullen.

And he's also emerged as a possible valuable supporter for Democratic front-runners with no military experience.

"Wesley Clark is an asset and has a lot to offer, and we'd certainly value his support," said Clinton spokesman Phil Singer.

Obama spokesman Bill Burton agreed and said Obama recently spoke with Clark. "Like most Americans, Sen. Obama thinks that Gen. Clark has a wealth of experience in issues of national security," Burton said.

Clark occupies a unique role in the Democratic Party. His military credentials, stretching from service in Vietnam to the position of NATO supreme allied commander during the war in Kosovo, stand out in a wartime election in which none of the front-running Democrats, and only one leading Republican, served in the military.

Clark also has a base of supporters from his own brief, momentarily promising 2004 presidential bid -– though he also has a sizable set of critics within the party. Clark’s feuds with the White House West Wing and the Pentagon -- particularly former Defense Secretary William Cohen -- were legendary during the Kosovo conflict.

In a telephone interview from New York, interrupted briefly by what Clark nonchalantly explained was an electromagnetic pulse, the retired general laid out the details of the advice he's been offering Democrats.

He said he's been dissatisfied with the debate's focus on troop levels.

"We've been talking about troops when we should be talking about strategies and policies," Clark said. The timetables for withdrawal that have been at the top of the Democrats' agenda in Congress is "necessary but not sufficient," he said.

Instead, Democrats need to focus more on broader regional moves and on taking credit for shifts in Bush administration policy.

"Now the administration's talking to Iran," Clark said. "The Democrats need to take credit for that. That was our idea that the administration refused to proceed with it until they got desperate."

He also said Democrats should be wary of Al Qaeda or Iranian attempts to affect both American policy and the 2008 election.

"The other side has a vote on what works," he said. "The Iranians put out the word in the summer of 2006 to make it hotter on the Americans, and they did, and there went all of Gen. [George] Casey's plans for the drawdown before the 2006 election."

 He also said, "It's clear that Osama bin Laden released a tape on the eve of the 2004 election to influence the presidential election."

He said he couldn't predict which side Al Qaeda would aim to help.

 "It depends on what the parties' respective positions are, but there's no doubt that the campaign in Iraq has been an enormous boon to Al Qaeda," he said.

Clark, meanwhile, said he hadn't consdered the question of his own endorsement, and he declined to explain his thinking about his own candidacy.

"I haven't been able to articulate that publicly," he said.
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