MANCHESTER, N.H. – Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark (search) emphatically denied he was testing the political waters with his trip to New Hampshire on Monday but his actions, namely jumping into a YMCA pool while reporters looked on, said otherwise.
Clark's stated reason for the visit was a business meeting in his role as chairman of WaveCrest Laboratories, a Virginia company working to develop electric engines for cars.
But the rest of his schedule was positively presidential: speaking at a Rotary Club luncheon, chatting with children at the YMCA day care center, meeting with Democratic Party activists at a restaurant where pictures of candidates past line the walls.
"I'm not a candidate," he said more than once.
Asked whether he's thinking of running, he gestured to a stack of 1,000 letters that a supporter had just presented to him urging him to enter the race.
"It's pretty hard not to think about this," he said.
The former NATO (search) commander graduated from Hall High School in Little Rock [Ark.] and until recently worked for Stephens Inc., a Little Rock-based investment firm.
Clark insisted during his visit Monday he was focused on having a "strategic dialogue" with voters about the challenges facing the nation now that the war with Iraq is over.
The United States has sent a powerful message that its military will intervene in other countries, he said. While it's too soon to predict the long-term ramifications, he said, Americans should be asking themselves tough questions, including, "Are we safer after all of this?" and "When ought the United States use force?"
The armed forces are so powerful, they will drive U.S. foreign policy, he told the Rotary Club members.
"We are on the verge of moving ahead with deploying our military in other places," he said. "Armed forces basically break things and kill people. It's very hard to use them constructively ... we don't talk about deterrence anymore. We talk about using our military."
At the Merrimack Restaurant, former state lawmaker Dudley Dudley, told Clark that she wants to support "the guy with the best shot at beating George Bush" and asked him what he'd offer.
"I'm assuming you're not here in New Hampshire for our beautiful spring weather," she said.
Clark again denied he is running for anything, but said whoever takes on Bush, national security will drive the election.
"You've got to have someone up there who understands enough, is confident enough and experienced enough, and who knows where the balance points are," he said.
And though he made his pitch to Democrats, Clark has said he is not a member of a political party. Asked about that Monday, he said he votes in Democratic primaries (search).
With his appearance at the YMCA pool, Clark may have been the first possible presidential hopeful to combine swimming and stumping for votes in New Hampshire since the late Paul Tsongas, who swam competitively at Dartmouth College and returned to work out with the team during his 1992 campaign for president.
Clark, 58, was a Rhodes scholar after graduating first in his class at West Point. He was NATO commander during the 1999 campaign in Kosovo.
If he runs, he would join nine candidates already seeking the Democratic nomination or openly thinking about it.
Susan Putney, an advertising vice president from Dover, spends her nights and weekends organizing a grass-roots effort urging Clark to run. She's been e-mailing Democrats around the state asking them to consider Clark and hold off on endorsing other candidates.
"It's a huge decision. We respect that," she said. "We'll wait."