Democrats' dark horse will declare his hand this week

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The Independent US

The waiting is almost over. By the end of the week General Wesley Clark, former supreme commander of Nato, and potential dark horse of the Democratic presidential field, will reveal whether he will challenge President Bush for the White House in 2004.

For months now, the subject of Gen Clark's future has been one of the more intriguing sub-plots of American politics. Intense, telegenic and indisputably clever, the general, 58, has stalked TV studios, business conventions and the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, making weighty speeches on America's future, but refusing to say even whether he was a Democrat or a Republican.

That veil has now been lifted. But with the media already half-bored with the nine declared runners, Gen Clark's performance has been masterly. He has left his options open, yet ensured coverage that his putative rivals - with the single exception of Howard Dean - could not but envy.

Now the procrastination is about to end. Unless the collective political wisdom here is very much mistaken, the Arkansas-born former Rhodes scholar will throw his hat into the ring when he addresses the University of Iowa on Friday. Given America's propensity for electing soldiers, he has some reason to hope.

True, it is extremely late in the day to start a campaign, when the pick of the donors and campaign operatives have already been snapped up by existing candidates. But Gen Clark has some formidable assets - as the attention paid to him by Mr Dean attests.

In the past few weeks, the former Vermont governor - clear front runner and the sole Democrat in the field to have created a real buzz - has met Gen Clark several times for what the latter calls "a full tour of the horizon". The bottom line is clear: if the general does not run, Mr Dean would like him on board, perhaps even as his vice-presidential running mate, should he win the nomination.

It's easy to see why. Gen Clark is most things that Mr Dean is not. He comes from the South, like the last three Democrats to win the White House. He has been publicly praised by Bill Clinton, that other famous Rhodes scholar from Arkansas and still the most popular Democrat in the land. He has a mix of gravitas, charm and good looks that made him a natural as an analyst for CNN in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

Long before it took place, Gen Clark was, like Mr Dean, an opponent of the war. Unlike Mr Dean, however, he has a glittering military résumé; whatever else, Republicans will find it hard to depict a decorated Vietnam veteran, who led the war to drive Slobodan Milosevic from Kosovo, as an unpatriotic liberal waffler. His politics are of the sensible New Democrat variety likely to appeal to undecided swing voters.

But a little critical scrutiny could expose another and less appealing Wes Clark. He is famously thin-skinned, drummed out early from his job as Nato supreme commander after personality and policy clashes with the then Defence Secretary, William Cohen, and much of the top Pentagon brass.

In the aftermath of Kosovo, he ordered General Sir Michael Jackson to prevent Russian troops from taking Pristina airport - to which the British K-For commander responded: "Sir, I'm not going to be the man who started World War III." That episode is bound to be used against Gen Clark to cast doubt on his image of rock-solid military judgement.

One blunt-spoken former US officer, Colonel David Hackworth, has gone so far as to describe Gen Clark as the "ultimate perfumed prince", more comfortable theorising about strategy and playing bureaucratic politics than hunkering down in the trenches with his men. That may be unkind. But if Gen Clark does enter the race, that is exactly where he will be: in the trenches, with enemy fire pouring in from all sides.