LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The Democrat drawing wary glances from the crowded presidential field and forcing some party stalwarts to hedge their bets on endorsements isn't even a candidate yet.
Wesley Clark (search), the retired Army general with four-star military credentials, is poised to shake up the primary race if he chooses to seek the presidency. Clark has promised to reveal his plans before a major speech in Iowa on Sept. 19.
Clark, 58, has a resume that unnerves potential rivals - Arkansas-raised, Rhodes scholar (search), first in his 1966 class at West Point (search), White House fellow, head of the U.S. Southern Command and NATO (search) commander during the 1999 campaign in Kosovo.
A White House bid by him would grab the political spotlight and undercut the strengths of several in the nine-way Democratic race.
"Certainly he's going to have an impact in the race, and I think he would be a good candidate," presidential hopeful Howard Dean (search) told The Associated Press in an interview Friday.
Dean was quick to point out, however, that Clark faces the challenge of catching up to candidates who have been campaigning for months, raising money and organizing, as well as attracting supporters through the Internet as Dean has.
"There will be some of that, but it will be incredibly hard to build what we have," the former Vermont governor said.
Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi, said Clark's entry would reshape the race just as Dean is gaining steam.
"I think people underestimate the energy of his support and the strength he has, particularly with some of the grass roots and Internet and even among elected officials. We're not underestimating him. We think he would have an impact on the race," Trippi said.
Another Democratic aspirant, Rep. Dick Gephardt (search), told a television interviewer on Sunday that Clark "would be a great candidate," although the Missouri congressman predicted he'll be the nominee.
Gephardt added that Clark was someone he'd "definitely look at as a possible good vice presidential candidate."
Although Dean has seized the momentum, the Democratic primary race is filled with uncertainty. A recent CBS News poll found that two-thirds of those surveyed couldn't name one of the nine candidates seeking the party's nomination, suggesting the race is wide open.
John Hlinko, a founder of DraftWesleyClark.com (search), one of several groups working to persuade Clark to run for president, acknowledged that the retired general is months behind the other Democrats but insisted Clark could make up ground quickly if he decides to run.
"There are some very good candidates, but a sizable number of the people are yearning for someone else," Hlinko said.
Clark supporters say they have received pledges of more than $1 million.
Not everyone is intrigued by a possible Clark candidacy.
"I don't think any of us are holding our breath because this guy is going to jump into the race and it's going to change things overnight," said Gary Nordlinger, a Washington-based Democratic consultant. "He could be a very interesting candidate. But right now, he's generating more curiosity than interest."
"I have nothing against Wes Clark, but I wouldn't recognize the guy if he was sitting in a restaurant with me having dinner," Nordlinger added.
But Clark has drawn the attention of union officials, including Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (search), and he has slowed efforts by Dean and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts to make inroads with labor. Some elected party officials also are holding their fire, waiting for Clark to decide.
"The Democrats have been out here for a while and a lot of people are disillusioned with all of them. He will be the fresh kid on the block and people might be excited about that," said Forrest Maltzman, a political science professor at George Washington University. "If he could win the nomination, a Southern Democrat with military experience is probably the Republicans' biggest fear. He would be a strong contender."
Clark's background could prove to be an attractive alternative to Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War hero and favorite of many party leaders. Although Clark was raised in Arkansas, he was born in Chicago just like candidate Carol Moseley Braun. And even though Clark grew up a Baptist and converted to Catholicism, his father was Jewish like candidate Joe Lieberman.
The inevitable comparison for Clark is with former President Clinton, the Rhodes scholar who traveled from Arkansas to the White House. Political observers cite the dynamics of Democratic politics in 1991, when Clinton declared his long-shot candidacy, and this year.
Clinton saw a President Bush struggling to repair the economy after a war in Iraq. Clark is looking squarely at another President Bush dealing with the nation's financial woes and an unsettled postwar Iraq, said Art English, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
"He may be also seeing a situation where he's coming into the Democratic field late, but where expectations in some of the early primaries might not be high, particularly because of regional candidates," English said.
"He's saying, 'There is time for me to make a mark with my positions in the forums and debates and demonstrate that I'm the cream of the Democratic crop by far.'"