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Gary Younge
Democrats' dilemma

It's not difficult to see why American generals have made reluctant electoral warriors in recent times. They are more used to giving than taking orders and to direct lines of command rather than the unruly insubordination that is public opinion. Dwight Eisenhower, the one exception of the last century, won the New Hampshire primary for the Republican nomination before he had even formally entered the race, and went on to a two-term presidency.

General Wesley Clark is hoping he might do the same for the Democrats after he became the 10th contender for the party's nomination last week. Clark's long-awaited announcement has brought him much-needed media attention, given that he entered the race so late in the day and with so few funds. Some have pinned great hopes alongside the epaulettes on his shoulders.

Ask them why and they will first brandish his CV. He graduated first in his class from West Point, was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford and supreme allied commander of Nato, in which position he prosecuted the Kosovan war. He hails from the south, where Democrats are becoming extinct. In a political culture where religion matters, Clark was raised a Baptist, converted to Catholicism when he got married, and his real father was Jewish. He's from Democratic party central casting.

Only then do they talk politics. He is pro-choice, pro-affirmative action and against tax cuts. His views on the war have wobbled of late, but as a CNN pundit in the build-up he was always sceptical.

Clark, they say, is everything both Bush and the other Democratic candidates are not. His personal history shows he is a man of the establishment with whom you can trust your security. His policy positions suggest he is a decent type you can trust with your civil rights and social welfare too. He is tough and tender, Mars and Venus - the man, they say, who can appeal to both America's head and its heart.

It is way too early to make any sensible prediction about how he will fare in the primaries. But his decision to stand already tells us a great deal about American politics and the mood of the Democratic party in particular.

It reveals the growing awareness that President Bush could lose in 2004. With the economy haemorrhaging jobs, and few signs of an endgame in Iraq, his approval ratings are now lower than they were before the terrorist attacks. "Taking a fall was inevitable, but he is increasingly vulnerable now," says Jaime Regalado, a political scientist at California State university. "The war in Iraq is showing escalating costs in money and human life, and the American public is showing escalating doubts."

When pollsters ask people whether they would vote for Bush or a Democrat, Bush barely breaks even. Just think how difficult it will be for him once the voters have a name for that Democrat. Clark is a shrewd man. Becoming the candidate would mean little to him unless he thought he was in with a shot at the big prize. Sadly, it also reveals that many Democrats have not yet worked out why Bush is vulnerable and how they can beat him. Clark is favoured partly on the premise that Bush will not be able to argue that a four-star general is weak on security and therefore removes the president's trump card. There are three problems with this.

First, the next election will most likely be fought on the economy, not on security, which has slipped to third place in voters' priorities behind jobs and healthcare. "A good economy can compensate for a bad Iraq," says Larry Sabato, director of the Centre for Politics at the University of Virginia. "A good Iraq cannot compensate for a bad economy."

Second, the war factor is a huge variable in any case, based not on whether it is right or not (most Americans still think it was) but whether it is successful (most Americans think it isn't). If they capture Saddam Hussein, support for the occupation will rise. If the Iraqi resistance launches a devastating attack on an American base, it will plummet. If there is another terrorist attack in the US, who knows?

Third, a war record is no guarantee that the Republicans will not brand you as weak on security. Senator Max Cleland of Georgia lost three limbs in Vietnam and is a former head of the Veterans' Administration. That didn't stop the Republicans defeating him by branding him unpatriotic for opposing the creation of Homeland Security. Being a retired general certainly won't hurt Clark. But it won't help him half as much as his supporters think either.

In truth, the sigh of relief from the Democratic party leadership on hearing of Clark's decision was less about how much they liked him and more to do with how much they loathe the other nine candidates in the race. As recently as early summer, the party hierarchy had written off the next election as a dead loss and were thinking ahead to Hillary in 2008.

In this judgment they have been overly hasty and out of touch with their base. Between them, the nine candidates - ranging from the conservative Joseph Lieberman to the radical Al Sharpton - were doing a relatively good job galvanising the party's supporters and reaching out to new ones.

The party bigwigs' attempts to dismiss the frontrunner Howard Dean have done little to stem his growing support among activists or his ability to raise money. While the Democratic leadership has been telling everyone who will listen that he cannot win, Dean has been drawing crowds of thousands and making the cover of Time and Newsweek. Dean has been cast as beyond the pale largely because of his opposition to the war and his pledge to reverse Bush's latest tax cuts. The problem for the party's leaders is that most Democratic voters agree with him on those points, and an increasing number of independents do too. Moreover, Dean is pro-gun, pro-death penalty and fiscally conservative. "I don't mind being characterised as a 'liberal'," he said in February. "I just don't happen to think it's true."

Clark is probably no worse and may even be somewhat better than the other leading candidates. His entry to the race should be welcomed for the simple reason that it gives Democrats more choice at a time when they are so angry they would embrace anyone who they thought could take the White House. Within limits this is no bad thing. But, as any general would tell you, desperation and anger are doubtful allies in battle. The good news is that defeating Bush is possible. The bad news is a Democratic victory still feels a long way off.

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