LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – After watching from the sidelines for months, former Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor was lured into action by presidential candidate Wesley Clark (search) - with a nudge from former President Clinton (search).
"The president knows General Clark better than I know General Clark, and I just asked what he thought," Kantor recalled. "He said, `I have a tremendous regard for him.'"
And with that, Kantor joined Clark's campaign as a senior adviser.
By action and association, Clinton has had a major impact on Clark's first bid for elective office, causing some Democrats to wonder whether the former president's pledge of impartiality may be giving way to his loyalty toward a fellow Arkansan.
There is no proof that Clinton is pulling the strings in Clark's campaign - indeed, most Democrats say they doubt the former president would be so bold.
But some party activists, particularly those lodged in rival campaigns, point to circumstantial evidence suggesting that the impressive list of political heavyweights rallying behind Clark may be a reflection of Clinton's endearment - if not endorsement.
Others say the support is coincidental, a result of so many Clinton allies vowing to remain neutral in this year's election only to get the itch late in the cycle.
Another theory: Clark's is the last hope for establishment Democrats who fear the other contenders have stalled while the current front-runner, Howard Dean (search), would be defeated by President Bush.
"I think for several months now the establishment - you know, the guys and girls who believe they're in the loop - they've been looking for a horse to ride and they looked at the nine in the race and said, 'All the seats aren't taken,'" said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile (search).
Regardless of the reasons why, it can't be disputed that Clinton is casting a long shadow over Clark's campaign.
The former president and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (search) of New York, urged Clark to enter. "He's a smart man, served our country well," Clinton said in Iowa on Saturday.
Clark's advisers point out that Clinton has counseled other Democratic candidates, and heaps them all with praise.
Then there's Clark's team, a potent mix of Clinton allies from Arkansas and lieutenants of two Clinton campaigns in the 1990s.
Skip Rutherford (search), head of the Clinton presidential library, former White House lawyer Bruce Lindsey, former Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark., and the entire Arkansas congressional delegation lined up behind Clark this week.
State Democratic leaders say the word is out that Clinton favors Clark, but their support is less about the former president than it is about their excitement over another favorite son candidacy.
A close Clinton associate, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the former president is not siding with any candidate. However, he said Clinton is the most "emotionally invested" with Clark, the candidate with whom he has most in common. The pair has had a casual acquaintance since the 1960s, culminated by the rise and fall of Clark's military career under Clinton.
Clinton is walking a fine line between impartiality and sending subtle signals of his support, the official said.
One of those signals came at a recent party in New York, when Clinton was overheard saying there were two Democratic stars - his wife and Clark.
A Washington-based Democratic consultant, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Clinton spoke glowingly of Clark in a recent conversation and mentioned offhandedly that the former general might need help.
Kantor said Clinton did not ask him to aid Clark.
"The only connection is we all share the same philosophy and sense of commitment to moving the country forward," Kantor said of Clark and his new team.
Clark's advisers include several other former Clinton administration officials, including Mark Fabiani and Eli Segal.
When Clark convened the first conference call of his campaign, he was joined by several Clinton allies including former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta (search), former White House aide Rahm Emanuel, now a congressman from Illinois, and former Clinton White House press secretary Mike McCurry, participants said.
Emanuel cheered Clark on.
"You have the potential to put the money together," he told the candidate.
Some of the conference callers hedged their support. Podesta, for example, has said he will lend advice to any Democrat to request it.
One participant told Clark that James Carville (search) and Paul Begala (search), two high-profile Clinton consultants, would be available to advise him. "I've offered to help all the candidates," Begala said in telephone interview.
Clinton's ties to the Clark campaign have triggered speculation among conservative commentators and Clark's rivals that the former president is encouraging a weak candidate so that he will lose, leaving the field open for Mrs. Clinton to run in 2008.
Most Democrats said that theory seems far-fetched, though Clinton fueled speculation Thursday when he seemed to hint that Mrs. Clinton could seek the White House this year despite her promise to complete her term.
"That's really a decision for her to make," Clinton said.