Democratic candidate Dean asks Wesley Clark to be running mate

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The Independent US

Howard Dean, presidential front-runner in the Democratic Party, has asked retired General Wesley Clark to join his campaign, should the former Nato commander decide not to join the race himself.

The move will strengthen speculation that if Mr Dean wins the nomination, he will select General Clark as his running mate to challenge George Bush in 2004.

Mr Dean's campaign officials confirmed the men had a private meeting in California at the weekend. Neither side would give details, but General Clark told The Washington Post it had been "a complete tour of the horizon", implying that the vice-presidency had been discussed.

There has been speculation that General Clark's public musings on whether to make a run for the White House mask his true ambition, of the vice-presidency. Though General Clark has been in contact with other candidates, for many analysts a Dean-Clark tandem has always seemed to make special sense.

It would combine Mr Dean's populist grassroots appeal with the retired general's military standing and expertise in foreign policy and national security - a vital area because of 11 September, but one in which the former Vermont governor has no experience.

An indication of possible pitfalls awaiting Mr Dean came this week with his throwaway remark that the US "should not take sides" in the Middle East conflict, and that Israel would have to give up an "enormous" number of settlements as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians. The comments left the powerful Jewish lobby aghast.

Senior Democrats in Congress, led by Nancy Pelosi, wrote to Mr Dean telling him not to rock the boat. In Tuesday's presidential debate in Baltimore, Joe Lieberman - who trails Mr Dean - accused him of overturning "50 years of US foreign policy" pursued by Democratic and Republican administrations alike.

Mr Lieberman's attack will be the first of many this autumn as Mr Dean's rivals seek to chip away his lead before the first primary votes in January. Media scrutiny will also concentrate on alleged policy "flipflops" by the front-runner, on issues ranging from trade policy and pensions to Cuba.

Mr Dean is also under assault for his promise to repeal Mr Bush's tax cuts in their entirety, rather than just cuts benefiting the very rich.

For the moment, though, Mr Dean has the initiative. A poll yesterday showed he had moved into the lead in Iowa, whose caucuses on 12 January kick off the primary campaign, while he is far ahead in the silent "money primary" as well. Propelled by a huge internet operation, he is likely to raise between $11m and $15m (£6.9m-£9.4m) this quarter, a record by any Democrat in modern times.

But the immediate spotlight is on General Clark. The 58-year-old former Rhodes Scholar and Nato commander during the Kosovo conflict is due to announce a decision within the next week, possibly when he makes a speech in Iowa on 19 September.

Those close to him say he wants to run but that he is not sure whether he has left it too late. In truth, a shadow Clark campaign exists already across the country, in the shape of two internet organisations, which has raised $1m and signed up thousands of activists.

As a southerner, with telegenic looks, a glittering career in the armed services and a moderate policy platform, General Clark has an attractive CV as candidate for the presidency or vice-presidency. Although he has always had the reputation of a highly "political" general, he has never been elected to any office.