A group of about 100 people gathered recently on a Monday night in Little Rock to eat chips and dip and discuss their shared passion -- General Wesley K. Clark. The bottom line among the group: They want him as their next president.
Little Rock is the place the former allied commander for NATO calls home. Clark was born in Chicago but grew up in Little Rock and returned in 2000 after a storied military career. This city, which watched Bill Clinton rise to global prominence, has recently become ground zero for the nationwide effort to recruit Clark for a White House run. Other "Draft Clark" groups throughout the country existed before this Arkansas group, but this is the one that matters the most now.
Jeff Dailey, the son of Little Rock's mayor and a former Clinton staffer, created "Arkansans for Clark," an online petition for Clark supporters. That group is working in tandem with the Draft Clark 2004 movement, which is now in 42 states with more than 100 chapters.
"General Clark has what it takes to ask Bush the tough questions, to really give Democrats a strong edge," says Dailey, who hopped on the Clark bandwagon after hearing him speak. "He is the kind of leader we need to deal with international and national issues -- brilliant and he knows the issues."
The Draft Clark 2004 movement plans to move its national headquarters to Little Rock in the next few days. Clark supporters from around the country will descend on the city and work on a full-fledged campaign to convince the general to run.
Their hope is that this show of loyalty will go toward convincing Clark to plunge into the already flooded field of nine Democrats. The big question: Is Clark a Democrat?
Clark has yet to declare a party and plays coy when asked. Most of his close associates insist he is a Democrat because he bashes George W. Bush. His record leans left of center. He's pro-affirmative action and pro-choice. He is against drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge and sits on the board of Wavecrest Laboratories, a Virginia-based technology company that has developed a breakthrough electric propulsion system that transforms electrical energy into mechanical motion.
Since exiting NATO, Clark has pontificated around the country about global affairs, appeared regularly as a military analyst on CNN, worked for Little Rock's Stephens Inc., the largest brokerage house off Wall Street, and traveled the world attending conferences and accepting awards. He has also launched his own Web site for Americans to talk about critical issues, which serves as an outlet to create a platform and gain media exposure. In September, Clark's new book about the war in Iraq and terrorism hits the shelves, a surefire boost for his name recognition.
Recently, on National Public Radio, Clark said he is seriously considering throwing his hat in the ring for president. He still dodges party affiliation, but his admitted interest in running erases any thoughts that Clark craved media attention so that he could shore up support as a vice-presidential candidate. A former general accustomed to controlling troops, he doesn't want to hang in the shadow of John Kerry or Joe Lieberman. Clark plans to lead his own campaign -- if it isn't too late for battle.
Clark has said that the one question Americans should ask themselves in 2004 is: Do you feel safer now than four years ago? The answer, he says, is probably no. With Clark as their candidate, Democrats get an inoculation against their perceived weakness on defense issues.
The general's critics say he should forgo the games about party affiliation if he wants to be considered a serious politician. They also say he should also have jumped in the race months ago, and it's really too late now. Most candidates have hired experienced staff who know the intricacies of Iowa and New Hampshire. Clark supporters point to Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, when the then-Arkansas governor didn't enter the race until October.
But maybe Clark's grand plan -- slowly building an army of loyal, hard-working supporters from coast to coast -- is working. They write letters, hold "meet ups" (the new online method to gain supporters), and recruit like-minded individuals to sign petitions. This support keeps the media's attention and lands Clark on the Sunday-morning talk shows.
In Little Rock, Clark confidants say that he told them several months ago he wouldn't run for president unless he was drafted. His request has definitely become reality. Every day more people log on and sign up to work for a man they know little about. Clark tells aides he will make a decision about the future before Labor Day.
Suzi Parker is an Arkansas journalist whose work frequently appears in The Economist and U.S. News & World Report.