Filling Town Hall with 1,200 supporters in May and drawing an astonishing 8,000 to a downtown rally last month, former Vermont governor Howard Dean's anti-Bush presidential candidacy has seemed to own Seattle. But retired four-star general Wesley Clark's long-awaited announcement last week that he was throwing his hat in the ring holds the potential to shake up the Democratic nominating contest locally.

That Clark could be a strong candidate was proven when some 50 devoted local Clark supporters gathered at Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant at Pacific Place downtown at 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, September 17. There they enthusiastically cheered Clark's 11-minute announcement speech, carried live on CNN from Little Rock, Arkansas.

Clark brings a formidable biography to the race: He was first in his class at West Point and a Rhodes scholar; his Vietnam combat record includes a Silver Star and Purple Heart; and his meteoric rise up the Pentagon ladder culminated in a role as supreme allied commander of NATO, a position from which he ran the successful Kosovo campaign. Despite his military background, Clark seems to have moderate to liberal views on domestic issues, while fiercely criticizing the Bush administration's handling of Iraq.

All of this makes him the best candidate to beat Bush, contends Kevin Price, 29, a University of Washington assistant professor of political science and staunch Clark supporter. But how well a political neophyte who only recently declared himself a Democrat--and who Newsweek claims sought a post-9/11 position in the Bush administration--will play over time with the Seattle Democratic activists who see the Bushies as pure evil remains to be seen.

Two days after Clark's announcement, Price said he was being deluged with calls from Clark fans. "Democrats are united by one thing--it's that we've got to beat Bush," Price stated. Like Dean, Clark has anti-Bush credibility; he was "calling out the administration from the start" on Iraq. But Price asserts that Clark can forge a broader base of support than Dean, who is perceived by many as too liberal and too angry to win.

Price--the volunteer state coordinator for DraftClark2004.com, one of two web organizations that prodded Clark to take the plunge--says local support for Clark has been growing for months. In June Price began organizing monthly pro-Clark "meetups." The first drew 13 people; the September event attracted 75.

Deborah Jones attended the announcement celebration, then spent the day downtown waving a Clark placard. She says that while she likes Dean because "he came out and told the truth early," she too feels Clark offers Democrats a more realistic chance of winning the White House. "I just don't think Dean can unify people and bring them together to beat Bush the way Clark can," she says.

George Cox, 60, Clark's former classmate at West Point in the mid-1960s, got misty-eyed as he watched Clark's kickoff. He says his classmate stood out from the pack even then, evincing unusual drive and intelligence. "He's a great guy," Cox adds.

Like Clark, Bill Clinton was a Rhodes scholar from Arkansas, and the parallels have not been lost on a number of prominent Clinton staffers who have flocked to join Clark's nascent campaign.

Unlike Clinton, though, Clark is not an experienced politician, and his announcement met with some skepticism from the national press, who generally panned his speech as failing to provide a distinguishing rationale for his late- starting bid. And Clark stumbled out of the box, first telling reporters he "probably" would have voted in favor of the Iraq war resolution, then backtracking the next day to say he wouldn't have.

Still, a national Newsweek poll last weekend showed Clark jumping into the lead with 14 percent support. Dean and Senator Joe Lieberman tied for second, each with 12 percent.

State Democratic Party chair Paul Berendt is cautious about Clark's chances. He predicts Clark's "impressive resumé and strong stand against the war will certainly help him with Washington Democrats," but adds that Clark "has a lot of work to do" to catch up with the support bases already built up by other candidates.

Local political consultant Blair Butterworth is skeptical about Clark's ability to put together the ground organization needed to flood the February 7 Washington caucuses. Consultant Christian Sinderman says Clark has "tremendous potential here." But, "this is such a Howard Dean state, the question is 'Does anybody have a chance here other than Dean?'"

sandeep@thestranger.com

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