The already crowded Democratic presidential field is to gain a 10th and intriguing entrant with the decision of retired General Wesley Clark, the commander of Nato during the 1999 Kosovo war, to join the race to challenge President George Bush next year.
General Clark will make his formal announcement today in Little Rock - the city where 12 years ago Bill Clinton officially launched the campaign that toppled Mr Bush's father.
Aides confirmed what for weeks has seemed increasingly certain: that after final consultations with his advisers and backers, the 58-year-old Arkansan would try to win the wide-open nomination.
By entering the contest so late, General Clark has much to do to catch his rivals, who have long had campaign organisations in place, raising money, collecting endorsements and searching for votes in early primary states such as New Hampshire, South Carolina and Iowa, whose caucuses take place on 12 January.
Though he has held high positions at the Pentagon and the White House, he has no mainstream political experience and little money. Though two "Draft Clark" groups on the internet offer a rudimentary national campaign structure, they have to date raised little more than $1m (£630,000) - a pittance compared with the $10m to $15m expected to be collected by Howard Dean, former Vermont governor, in the third quarter alone.
But General Clark has some strong cards. Though a critic of the Iraq war, he boasts a glittering military record that should neutralise President Bush's high standing on national security issues - a standing that has been tarnished by the chaos in Iraq. As a southerner and a moderate, General Clark is as well placed as any Democrat to break the Republican stranglehold on a region where Al Gore did not win a single state in 2000. Most important of all, perhaps, the contest is still wide open.
Mr Dean, whose summer surge has made him the man to beat, is starting to slip up as he comes under increasing scrutiny from the media and his rivals begin to pummel his record. Before Mr Dean's breakthrough, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts had been expected to jump to the front of the pack. But Mr Kerry's campaign has failed to cause excitement, and suffered a further blow this week with the resignation of a top campaign strategist.
Chris Lehane gave no reason for his decision to quit, but associates said it reflected the Kerry campaign's refusal to take a more aggressive line against Mr Dean, his main opponent in New Hampshire, a virtual must-win state for the Massachusetts senator.
The candidacy of General Clark, with his extensive national security experience, will be a blow to Mr Kerry, a Vietnam war hero who has made much of his military record.
None the less Mr Kerry is far from out of things. Most national polls show him close to the top of the field behind Mr Dean, with Senator Joe Lieberman and the former House majority leader Richard Gephardt.
Trailing them is Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, another southerner who could be hurt by the entry of General Clark. Mr Edwards, a wealthy former trial lawyer, became the latest candidate to stage a belated "launch" of his campaign. In a speech yesterday at the North Carolina textile mill where his father once worked, Mr Edwards vowed to be "a champion for regular people every day".
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