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Members Flock to Clark

Newest Presidential Entry Hits Hill Next Week

At least seven Democratic Members of Congress threw their support to presidential candidate Wesley Clark Tuesday and many more could be joining the list as he prepares for his first campaign visit to Capitol Hill next week.

The retired Army general from Arkansas lined up the support of all five Congressional Democrats from his home state, as well as a diverse pair of House Democrats: Reps. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), the highest ranking African-American in Congress, and Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), the second-term lawmaker from St. Paul.

Clark has tapped Rangel and Rep. Marion Berry (Ark.) to head up his efforts with their House colleagues. “I think he’s the most exciting entry into American politics in recent history,” Rangel said.

Berry said in an interview Tuesday that the former NATO supreme commander will visit the Hill next week to spend time courting uncommitted Members. “So many people have expressed a great deal of interest and willingness to support the general but many of them have not met him,” Berry explained.

With seven Congressional endorsements, Clark has already vaulted into the top tier of that mini-primary. Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) has the most endorsements, with 31, followed by Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), who now has 17, including the addition Tuesday of the highest profile endorsement to date offered by any female Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.). Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) has 13, mostly from fellow moderates.

Clark’s seven Congressional endorsements — before his candidacy was even official — places him in the same neighborhood as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (nine), North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (eight) and Florida Sen. Bob Graham (seven), each of whom has been actively campaigning since at least last spring.

Arkansas Sens. Mark Pryor (R) and Blanche Lincoln (D) were deferential to Clark’s announcement timetable, with an expected official kick-off in Little Rock today, but both are clearly on board with the campaign.

“I’m going to support him,” said Pryor, who spoke with Clark in a Tuesday afternoon phone call and then planned to make a series of calls to the Senators in the presidential race to explain his decision. “I’ve got to talk to some of my colleagues about that.”

“If he announces he’s going to run, he’ll make a great man for the job. I’m sure I’ll be working with him a lot in Arkansas,” Lincoln said.

But Clark does not appear to have the official endorsement of another veteran of Arkansas politics, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), despite the fact that many close political advisers to the Clinton family are lining up behind Clark. Rangel, for one, was instrumental in luring Clinton into the 2000 Senate race in New York. Other Clark supporters close to the Clintons include fundraiser Skip Rutherford, former White House Counsel Bruce Lindsey and former Clinton-Gore 1996 re-election Chairman Peter Knight.

Sen. Clinton pledged Tuesday to stay out of the primary. “I’m not going to endorse anyone. I’m going to support whoever the nominee is,” she said.

After making it official today in Little Rock, Clark is expected in Iowa on Friday, followed by the trip next week to Washington, where a community of politicians, strategists, lobbyists and aides who are increasingly hungry — if not desperate — for someone to beat President Bush will have a chance to take official measure of the former four-star general.

When he was still only considering the race, Clark spent time in D.C. in late June discussing his potential candidacy with Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (Nev.) and a handful of conservative House Democrats.

Berry said he and Rangel were in the process of scheduling sitdowns for Members with Clark. McCollum quickly came out in support of Clark on Tuesday, calling him “a man of incredible intellect and integrity.”

Many Democrats believe Clark is the ideal candidate to offset the presumed advantage Bush will have on foreign policy issues in the 2004 election while also attacking Bush on the economy and other domestic issues.

Even without fully knowing where he is on many of the issues, some Democrats were rejoicing in his candidacy Tuesday.

“This may well be sending shock waves through the White House,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who stopped short of endorsing Clark. Boxer said her knowledge of Clark came from his testimony at hearings before the Foreign Relations Committee, of which she is a senior member.

Asked why she was backing Clark, Lincoln said, “He’s a native son.”

Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), who has remained neutral in advance of the Palmetto State’s crucial early primary, summed up the views of those who don’t know enough about Clark beyond his military credentials: “Seems like a nice fella, but I don’t know anything about him.”

But the Democrats supporting Clark have made the calculation that none of the candidates in the race can sufficiently neutralize Bush on the issue of international security, which many believe will serve as a litmus test in the 2004 campaign because of the post-9/11 global environment of terrorism and war.

“On the issue of patriotism, he’s Teflon,” Rangel said.

“The nation is in serious jeopardy and [Clark] understands the world community,” said Berry. “And, he understands the fact that the economy is in the tank and just cutting taxes doesn’t fix it.”

Berry’s homestate colleagues — Reps. Vic Snyder and Mike Ross — also enthusiastically threw their support behind Clark on Tuesday, arguing that a late start in the presidential race will not hamper him.

“The last guy to run for president from Arkansas and win didn’t announce until Oct. 1,” said Ross, referring to the successful candidacy of then-Gov. Bill Clinton in 1992.

Clinton, however, had been organizing institutional support in key primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire for a number of months prior to his official entry into the race.

While supporters of Clark have run a skeleton operation of their own to promote his candidacy, he clearly begins with a significant organizational disadvantage with the Iowa caucuses just over four months off.

Regardless of any institutional disadvantages, Clark’s decision has clearly generated quite a bit of excitement in the halls of Congress.

“This is a man who has dedicated more than three decades of his life to public service,” said Ross. “Throughout his life he has been preparing himself to be commander in chief.”

When asked whether the Clark boomlet could implode since the retired general has never previously run for office, Rangel just chortled, “The only time that has been raised about a candidate is when I was asked about Hillary Clinton.”

Ed Henry contributed to this report.

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