Former Nato commander set to join fight against Bush

He is a former Rhodes Scholar who comes from Arkansas and gives every impression of wanting to be President. Unlike Bill Clinton however, this one did fight, and was decorated, in Vietnam - and rose to the top of the US military.

Within a fortnight or so, America will find out whether Wesley Clark, supreme commander of Nato during the Kosovo war, will join the crowded field of Democrats challenging George Bush for election in 2004. But for all the 58-year-old retired general's disclaimers (which earlier this year reached the point of saying he hadn't even decided which party he belonged to) signs are multiplying that he will enter the race.

For months General Clark has been making weighty speeches about the national destiny, doing the talk show rounds and making appearances in key primary states such as New Hampshire and Iowa. Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said yesterday that he expects General Clark to challenge for the party's nomination, while The New York Times quoted friends as saying he would like to run, but is assessing whether he has a realistic chance. Central to his calculations is the former Vermont governor Howard Dean, if anything even more critical of Mr Bush's war in Iraq than General Clark himself and who - largely as a result of that criticism - has emerged as the surprise early frontrunner.

But two internet organisations have been pressing his candidacy. One is putting a shadow national organisation in place, the other claims to have raised more than $1m (£600,000). Both promise to join forces if their man becomes a candidate.

On paper, General Clark has a perfect resume in a country which has never had qualms about electing former soldiers to the highest office. His military background gives him instant credibility in a contest where national security issues are likely to play a central role.

He is from the south, like the last three Democrats to win the White House. He is handsome, an accomplished and fluent speaker whose telegenic skills were honed by a stint as a military analyst for CNN before and during the Iraq war.

But he has disadvantages to match. He would be joining the contest very late, taking on candidates with organisations in place and vastly more money, way behind in the chase for endorsements from important party constituencies. Mr Dean, for instance, expects to raise more than $10m in the third quarter alone.

General Clark's reputation is not perfect. Detractors say he is arrogant, short tempered and a grandstander. In Britain he may be best remembered as the commander who ordered British troops to take the airport at Pristina in Kosovo, when a Russian force moved in at the end of the 1999 war. General Sir Michael Jackson, the commander of British forces, refused, saying: "I'm not going to be the man who starts World War III." There is a sneaking suspicion as well that General Clark's true goal is the vice-presidential slot. His southern background and military record would make him a perfect running mate for, say, Mr Dean, a New Englander and labelled by many as just another northern liberal.

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