WASHINGTON – They said yes. Then no. Now it's yes again: Retired Gen. Wesley Clark (search) will participate in next week's Democratic presidential debate after all, his campaign said.
Clark will accept the invitation to next Thursday's debate via a letter to Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe (search) carried by several members of a draft-Clark group, a senior campaign official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.
The letter will be delivered Friday, weather permitting, the official said.
Clark came under fire Thursday for suggesting he would skip the first debate for which he was eligible, one day after declaring himself a Democratic presidential candidate.
On Thursday night, Clark's campaign said he would participate in the debate, but then quickly backtracked. Spokeswoman Holly Johnson said Clark had a contract to give a paid speech in Texas next Thursday at the same time the nine other Democratic candidates planned to gather.
"I hope I'll be there," Clark said after a campaign stop Thursday night in Hollywood, Fla. "I'd like to do it."
The debate in New York City will focus on economic issues. On Thursday, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman's campaign challenged Clark to attend the event.
"The economy is going to be arguably the most important topic that will be discussed this entire political season," said Lieberman spokesman Jano Cabrera. "Surely the general can change his schedule to discuss this issue with the American people."
Clark is a retired four-star general who was head of the U.S. Southern Command and NATO commander during the 1999 campaign in Kosovo. He has also served as a cable news military analyst.
The Clark camp did not disclose to which group Clark was contracted to speak. Senior campaign officials claimed they didn't know and made it clear they didn't want to discuss the details because ultimately they expected Clark to attend the debate.
Earlier Thursday, Clark aide Barbara Leyton called the Democratic National Committee (search) and said the retired general would participate in the debate and the party's fund-raising dinner afterward, said DNC spokeswoman Debra DeShong.
Clark aide Donnie Fowler later said Leyton is one of many people working for Clark, but she didn't have the correct information when she called the party to accept the debate invitation. Fowler, who ran Al Gore's field operation in 2000, said he doesn't have a title with the campaign, but officials speaking on a condition of anonymity said he would be its manager.
Several campaigns criticized Clark, saying a debate on the economy is too important for a presidential candidate to miss.
"I think all Democrats will be disappointed if General Clark passes on an opportunity on national television to lay out his policies for making the American economy stronger and fairer," said Jim Jordan, campaign manager for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.
The New York debate will be the second in a series of six debates sponsored by the Democratic National Committee. The now-10 candidates also plan to attend several other forums hosted by Democratic interest groups.
DNC officials said McAuliffe mentioned the debate every time he spoke to Clark in recent weeks, and told him how important it is that he participate.
Clark officially joined the race on Wednesday, announcing in his hometown of Little Rock, Ark., that he plans to lay out serious questions asking why the administration has failed on several policy fronts, including Iraq and job creation.
Some pundits have said his late entry into the race puts him at a disadvantage.
But Clark hesitated before joining in part because he lacked the cash, both campaign contributions as well as personal finances. Not being independently wealthy, Clark needs an income while he runs and doesn't benefit from the congressional pay several other candidates receive.
Raising millions of dollars this late in the game could be tough. Other Democrats have been tapping traditional Democratic donor bases for months. Labor, Hollywood, African-Americans and Jewish donors in New York and Florida are frequently pursued for donations.
But insiders in both parties say Washington's special interest community has not yet fully opened its political checkbook. With the help of high-profile members of former President Clinton's team, Clark could tap into that.
The downside of looking to Washington's K Street lobbyists is that it could undermine his image as an outsider. However, since timing is critical in politics, the calendar could be a help to Clark.
If he raises significant cash in the final quarter of the year, which starts Oct. 1, Clark will not need to disclose his earnings or donors until Jan. 15, 2004, just days before the first caucus and primary votes are cast. The short space between his disclosure and the elections would leave little time for voters to fully determine if Clark's outsider campaign were largely funded by D.C. lobbyists.
Clark may sidestep Iowa a bit. Since he is late in starting, it will be difficult to get ahead in the state, which is distinctive for the amount of on-the-ground campaigning and hand-shaking events candidates must attend. Instead, Clark plans a mass marketing campaign using television interviews and the Internet.
Caucus night, set for Jan. 19, consists of meetings in roughly 2,000 precincts statewide, where party activists nominate and argue about the candidates. The process, which is much different than an open primary, invites the most loyal and often more liberal Democrats.
That form of nominating could be a disadvantage to Clark, whose appeal to independents and Republicans might fail to ignite the party loyalists who make up the base of the caucus participants, Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford said.
Fox News' Carl Cameron and The Associated Press contributed to this report.