In many presidential campaigns a moment arrives when disappointment with the declared candidates sets in, and a dream candidate emerges—one who seems to personify all that is missing from the field. Colin Powell was once such a figure for the Republicans, and Mario Cuomo for the Democrats. Often a candidate's very unavailability is a large part of his appeal. The paradox is that the hold on the imagination that attractive outsiders have from afar often disappears when they enter the race, and suffer the same scrutiny and attack as any other candidate. Perhaps for this reason few of them actually declare themselves. Howard Dean, who started out as this kind of outsider, still enjoys something like this hold, even though he declared early. The person playing the role of Hamlet candidate is Wesley Clark—a retired four-star general, a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, a Rhodes scholar, a war hero, and, in every meaningful way save actual registration, a Democrat.
Over the past year Clark traveled the country delivering speeches notable for their strident criticism of the Bush Administration's prosecution of the war on terrorism and, recently, its handling of the deteriorating situation in Iraq. At the same time, he encouraged speculation that he would seek the Democratic nomination; as this piece went to press he signaled that he was on the verge of making a decision. Many Democrats believe that Clark could be a Promethean figure for a party deemed profoundly insufficient on the very subjects—national security and military issues—likely to dominate the 2004 campaign. "Clark has the ability to single-handedly reverse three decades of weakness by the Democratic Party in the area of national security," Timothy Bergreen, the founder of the think tank Democrats for National Security, recently told me.