WASHINGTON – Wesley Clark's entry into the Democratic presidential primary is already proving advantageous, say congressional Democrats who argue that the retired four-star general's bid negates their image as soft on defense.
Several lawmakers interviewed said regardless of whether Clark wins the nomination, having him among the party's candidates increases their credibility on the military and foreign affairs.
"It's very bad for me as a Democrat to be tagged as somebody who doesn't support the military," said Rep. Baron Hill, D-Ind. "He takes that issue back for us."
Rep. Charles Rangel (search), D-N.Y., a decorated veteran of the Korean War who is backing Clark, said the former NATO supreme commander "is Teflon to the question of being a patriot."
Democrats "need someone who'll stand up with Bush and doesn't have to say, 'I'm as patriotic as you are, now let's debate the issues,'" Rangel said.
Rep. Marion Berry, a fellow Arkansas Democrat who is lining up support for Clark on Capitol Hill, said more than 30 members of Congress have told him they will back the former general. The only other Democratic presidential candidate who can match that is former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt.
Clark plans to visit Capitol Hill next week in an effort to line up even more support, Berry said. He said he expects close to 50 lawmakers will be ready to endorse Clark by then, including more than half of the "Blue Dog" coalition (search) of centrist Democrats as well as more liberal members.
Clark plans to make his first campaign stop Thursday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., site of the 2000 presidential recount. He's also under pressure from Democrats to participate in a party-sponsored debate next week that will focus on economic issues.
Clark's economic positions are largely undefined, and his aides said he may miss the event because he is supposed to give a paid speech that day.
"Anyone who has never run for office before needs to articulate his position on issues," said Rep. Martin Frost (search), D-Texas. "I'm very open to him, but I want to win."
Those who have already announced that they support Clark include all five of the Arkansas Democrats in the House and Senate, Rangel and Reps. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, Steve Israel of New York, Jim Matheson of Utah and Betty McCollum of Minnesota.
Tennessee Rep. John Tanner, a member of the Blue Dog coalition, said many in the group like Clark's emphasis on fiscal discipline as well as his military background. Tanner said Clark brings a perspective that needs to be heard in the presidential race. When asked if he would support Clark, Tanner said he already pledged to support Gephardt early in the race.
Missouri Rep. Ike Skelton, another Gephardt supporter, also had praise for Clark. "I don't know about the political end of it, I just know he's a very, very outstanding person. Very good soldier," Skelton said.
South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, whose support is being sought by several presidential candidates, said Clark called him Tuesday night to let him know he was entering the race. Clyburn said he will consider endorsing Clark.
"I think having Wesley Clark demonstrates very forcefully that we are soldiers, we are patriots, we are lovers of this country," Clyburn said.
Clark's out-of-the-gate support reflects some Democrats' coolness to the nine candidates who have been working for the nomination for months. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has attracted grass-roots support, but has just nine endorsements from congressional members. Sens. John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, John Edwards and Bob Graham have also failed to win widespread support from their congressional colleagues.
"I looked hard at the other candidates and none of them brought to me the confidence that we could win the White House," McCollum said.
Israel said no other candidate in the race can confront Bush so effectively on national security.
"When the president is debating Wesley Clark and has to call him 'General,' it becomes highly problematic for the president," Israel said.
Sen. Edward Kennedy said Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has a record that can compete. Kennedy and Kerry both represent Massachusetts.
"I'm campaigning for him and I expect that Kerry will be the Democratic candidate," said Kennedy. "He has been one of the most thoughtful on foreign relations and national security."