Wesley Clark ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 2004 election. Although he announced his intention to run in September of 2003, making him the last to declare his candidacy formally, he immediately emerged as a strong contender due to his military experience, his perceived ability to attract southern votes, and his potential to win over independent and moderate Republican voters. Ultimately, however, he fared poorly in early primaries, a showing he later attributed to his decision to skip the Iowa Caucuses. He dropped out of the race in February 2004 and subsequently campaigned for John Kerry and the Kerry/Edwards ticket.
Wesley Clark rose to prominence through his extensive military career. Born in Chicago in 1944, he grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas and attended West Point. After graduating, he undertook a Rhodes Scholarship before serving in the Army and the Department of Defense for thirty-four years. Clark retired as a four star general in 2000.
Clark became more politically engaged after he retired. During the early years of the George W. Bush administration, Clark supported intervention in Afghanistan but criticized the United States’ actions in Iraq. In particular, he expressed skepticism about President Bush’s claim of weapons of mass destruction as a pretext for entry into Iraq, as well as the Bush Administration’s decision to act without the support of the United Nations. Clark frequently argued that the war in Iraq undermined the larger war on terror.1
In the spring of 2003, rumblings of grassroots support emerged on the internet for a Wesley Clark campaign. A website called www.draftwesleyclark.com encouraged supporters to write him letters. By September it and a similar site, www.draftclark2004.com, had raised $1.5 million for Clark’s campaign, although he had not yet officially decided to run.2
In the eyes of some Democratic voters and strategists, Clark’s lack of a previous political background combined with his extensive military service gave him an air of credibility and patriotism that they hoped would make him competitive in the general election. Encouraged by this thinking and by the efforts of his grassroots supporters, Clark finally entered the campaign on September 17, 2003. The last of ten Democratic candidates, Clark faced an uphill battle in fundraising and organizing. However, his late arrival to the campaign also had the potential to work in his favor; many voters who had already experienced months of campaigning by the other candidates considered him a fresh face. A Newsweek poll the week after Clark entered the campaign put him slightly ahead of other Democratic candidates, including then-front runner Howard Dean.3
Clark’s new found success in the campaign also opened him to criticism and questioning, however. Some critics considered him an opportunist; they pointed to the fact that he had voted for both parties in the past and had been a registered Independent for many years, implying that he had only chosen to run as a Democrat because the Republicans had an incumbent.4 Others pointed to his lack of political experience. Still others were made skeptical by a number of articles that decontextualized Clark’s words and claimed he supported the Iraq War.5 Clark’s career in the military meant that he had carried out policies that were unpopular with many liberal voters in 2004. While his military career and his lack of a partisan history certainly gave him mainstream appeal, it also made some leftist voters, bloggers, and commentators wary.
In October, with polls showing Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean in close contention for the Iowa Caucus, Clark decided to conserve his resources and not to campaign in Iowa. Subsequently, when the caucus was held in January of 2004, John Kerry won, with John Edwards in second and Howard Dean third. Clark finished third in the New Hampshire primary later that month, a disappointment after actively campaigning there. As the campaign continued, Clark found himself at sea, particularly against John Kerry, who also boasted military credentials, but with the addition of years of experience in elected office. The Clark campaign’s claim that he was the strongest candidate in the South soon faltered as Senator John Edwards’ appeal grew, relegating Clark to a third-place showing in both the Tennessee and Virginia primaries. By mid-February, despite a victory in Oklahoma, Clark’s campaign was running out of money and appeared to have lost its early momentum. Clark dropped out of the race on February 11 and began actively campaigning for John Kerry.6 That spring he launched a political action committee, WesPAC, which supported the campaign of Kerry. He also appeared at the Democratic National Convention in Boston that July, where he emphasized and praised John Kerry’s military background.
Clark was rumored to be a potential candidate in 2008, but he chose not to run, instead supporting Hillary Clinton and ultimately Barack Obama. Since the 2004 election he has largely worked as a private businessman, although he has also served as a frequent commentator on political issues.
1 “The Last Word: Wesley Clark Marching on Washington?” Newsweek 14 July 2003.
2Kirk Semple, “Retired General Poised to Seek Democratic Nomination in ‘04” The New York Times, 16 September 2003.
3Katharine Q. Seelye, “Clark Collects a Large Sum in a Short Time The New York Times, 22 September 2003.
4Antonia Felix, Wesley K. Clark: A Biography (New York: New Market Press, 2004), 191.
5Adam Nagourney, “Clark Says He Would Have Voted For War,” The New York Times, 19 September 2003
6Edward Wyatt, “Clark Ends His Campaign After Poor Showing in the South” The New York Times, 11 February 2004.