LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The field of nine Democratic presidential candidates grew by one Wednesday as retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark (search) entered the contest to take on President Bush in 2004.
"My name is Wes Clark. I am from Little Rock, Arkansas, and I am here to announce that I intend to seek the presidency of the United States of America," Clark told a large crowd assembled outside the Boys and Girls Club (search) in his hometown.
In the traditional candidate's uniform of dark-blue suit and red tie, Clark smiled and complimented supporters' signs as they chanted: "We want Clark."
Clark said he would ask tough questions and hold the Bush administration accountable for answers about job losses, the federal deficit, civil liberties and a growing international dislike for the United States — all while conducting a positive campaign.
"We're going to ask those hard questions, my friends, and we're going to do so not in destructive bickering or in personal attacks, but in the highest tradition of democratic dialogue," Clark said. "I hope that these speeches and my entire campaign will generate some kind of frank, honest, open public debate this nation deserves."
Clark's Arkansas supporters believe they have a winner in Clark, who meets all the criteria Democrats think they need in a presidential candidate.
Clark is a military man who opposed war with Iraq. He also originates from a Southern state, something many pundits believe is needed for a Democrat to defeat a Republican.
Having entered the race late, Clark will have to hard-sell himself right out of the box by polishing up his military-service record and putting himself on display. He planned to deliver a speech at the University of Iowa (search) Friday, but began raising his profile Wednesday by making the rounds on the morning news shows to discuss his qualifications
"What I have got is a full military career starting in fighting in Vietnam and going through leading the NATO operation in Kosovo," Clark told Fox News. "I have been engaged in high policy making, I have been engaged in high politics in terms of many bills and other issues going through Congress. I have been engaged in high diplomacy, and so I think I have very, very relevant experiences to the challenges our nation faces at this time."
Clark has never run for political or elected office, and will have to detail his criticism of the war in Iraq and what he would have done differently. He also has to explain inconsistencies in his positions about the war.
While a military commentator for a cable news network during the war, Clark said he believed that weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq. In April, Clark wrote an editorial for the Times of London celebrating the military victory in Iraq and saying President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair should be proud of their resolve in the face of so much doubt.
But on Wednesday, he said he didn't think there was an imminent threat to security from Iraq, and he added, "We didn't have the preparations and that's what's costing us now."
Clark will also have to clear many political hurdles in the next four months before the first primary votes are cast by explaining his positions on health care, affirmative action, education and other issues dominating the debate.
At his announcement in Little Rock, Clark was backed by a cabal of supporters who will discuss how he planned to raise money and visibility.
On Tuesday, Clark had gathered advisers at his small, low-slung brick headquarters on the banks of the Arkansas River to discuss strategy.
Those strategists are among the party's best and include Mark Fabiani, a spokesman for former Vice President Al Gore's 2000 campaign; Ron Klain, a strategist in Al Gore's 2000 campaign; Washington lawyer Bill Oldaker; Vanessa Weaver, a Clinton appointee; Skip Rutherford, a Clinton fund-raiser who lives here; and George Bruno, a New Hampshire activist. Bruce Lindsey, former White House aide and now an Arkansas lawyer, also backs Clark.
An Internet-fueled draft-Clark movement has developed the seeds of a campaign organization and more than $1 million in pledges.
The Draft Clark for President 2004, one of several draft Clark groups, boasts of 166 coordinators in 50 states.
Clark applauded the grassroots organization, saying: "You have taken the inconceivable and made it conceivable."
While sources told Fox News earlier that New York Sen. Hillary Clinton would serve as Clark's campaign co-chairman and numerous other Arkansas-based supporters of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, were also lending a hand in the campaign, the senator's office told Fox News late Tuesday that she had not agreed to serve on the campaign.
Clark aides later said they had miscommunicated with Clinton's office and no determination had been made about her participation. Bill Clinton had urged Clark to enter the race, but neither he nor Gore is expected to take sides in the primary fight.
The perceived Democratic front-runner, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, said Wednesday he welcomes Clark's entry into the contest.
"I think he will be a great addition to the race and I think he will be helpful to the Democratic Party," Dean said, declining to go into details about a discussion the two had recently. Sources close to the talks indicated that Dean had offered Clark a vice presidential berth. Clark supposedly turned it down.
Dean has made a name for himself by blasting the Bush administration for a myriad of topics, most notably the Iraq war, and Clark could pull support from Dean. Clark also may appeal to middle-of-the-road Democrats whom Dean was said to be alienating with his liberal rhetoric.
The latest Field Poll from California, taken before Clark's entry into the race, had Dean leading the pack with 23 percent of the vote, followed by Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman with 15 percent. Clark fell somewhere in the middle of the pack with 4 percent of the vote.
Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, said he thought Clark could steal votes from the other candidates. Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt is leading the latest Gallup poll with 16 percent of the vote. Clark earned 10 percent.
"Statistically, they are all tied together. There is no real front-runner at this point, and Clark, though he has low name ID, could be competitive," Newport told Fox News.
Pundits had mixed reactions to the news.
"He's kind of a wild card there," said Michael Barone, a Fox News contributor and senior writer for U.S. News and World Report.
He said recent polls show that Clark's opposition to the way Bush approached Iraq may give him a boost in the Democratic primary.
But his lack of political experience makes him "an untested commodity," Barone said. "He's going to be subject to more scrutiny than he's used to."
"His entry into the race makes it harder for other candidates who are all trying to be anybody but Dean," added Tom Edsall of The Washington Post, referring to the former Vermont governor who currently is ahead of the other contenders in the race.
Clark was a Rhodes scholar, first in his 1966 class at West Point, White House fellow, head of the U.S. Southern Command and NATO commander during the 1999 campaign in Kosovo.
Fox News' Carl Cameron and Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.