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Retired General Enjoys Coverage Candidates Covet

He's not running for anything -- yet. He has no exploratory committee. No campaign cash. It isn't even clear if he's a Republican or a Democrat. Still, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark has gotten what the Democratic presidential candidates crave -- hours of air time.

During the U.S.-led war against Iraq, the former four-star general and NATO commander has been an analyst for CNN, dissecting the military's strategy several times a day, seven days a week. This all comes while the nine Democratic candidates have struggled for coverage, with the war overshadowing nearly all political news.

Clark took on the analyst role amid speculation that he might join the crowded Democratic field. He has emphatically said he is not a candidate, but he also has said he's thought about challenging President Bush.

"If you wanted to raise your visibility, cost-free, at a time when visibility on a major network should translate into viability in the polls, you should be a respected general who is a commentator on a widely viewed network," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a political communications specialist.

The 58-year-old Clark is an Arkansas-raised Rhodes scholar who graduated first in his class at West Point and served as NATO commander during the 1999 campaign in Kosovo. The resume is stellar, but the chances of the Democratic Party nominating a retired general with no political experience are slim at best, given the liberal leanings of the party's rank-and-file.

Clark may be better positioned for another political job.

"I think at a minimum he could be everybody's favorite vice presidential pick," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "He has a great story to tell, he has tremendous credibility on the issues of war -- credibility and strength on issues that Democrats are striving to get credibility on."

A grass-roots organization has created a Web site titled, "Draft Wesley Clark," with the aim of persuading him to seek the Democratic nomination through a letter-writing campaign.

But Republicans dismiss the notion of a Clark candidacy, arguing that he has no political base and limited name recognition.

"Two-thirds of Democratic voters opposed the war," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, referring to prewar polls. "It would be very difficult for him to gain traction."

And Clark's television exposure could have a downside. The White House, Pentagon officials and the Republican leadership have criticized the retired military officials populating the airwaves, complaining about their carping about the war plans when the coalition took its hits early on.

"Blow-dried Napoleons that come on television and in some cases have their own agendas," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. DeLay added, "General Clark is one of them that is running for president."

Clark defends his analysis, saying he's been "fair and evenhanded." He has said it is unfair to second-guess generals on the ground "without having been involved in the planning of battle."

Clark's hours of on-air comments, however, could be revived later on in the election cycle.

"If he were on the ticket, opponents could take his stuff off CNN and say 'here's what he said, and here's what happened,"' said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University.