When activists began cobbling together a Draft Wesley Clark for President campaign, their Internet initiative looked to be longer on idealism than pragmatism. George W. Bush’s approval ratings were as high as his dad’s in 1991 and the Democratic Party had a glut of senators, congressmen and political hangers-on who were willing to lose gracefully in 2004. But Clark, who traded his Army general’s uniform to become an outspoken if not always consistent critic of the Bush Administration’s military adventurism, seemed interested. So his enthusiasts persisted in believing that if they built a campaign, the general would run.

They were right. Clark elbowed his way onto the Democratic field just in time to overshadow the showy announcement that North Carolina Senator John Edwards hoped would revitalize his hapless campaign. The timing serves as a reminder that Clark is no political innocent. He let front-runners stumble, watched second-tier campaigns flail and waited patiently for evidence that Bush was beatable while his supporters created a turnkey campaign. Clark is not starting late. Rather, he is taking command of an army of volunteers that has organized in fifty states, established networks of local coordinators in Iowa and New Hampshire, and collected commitments for $1.5 million in campaign contributions. And he has attracted to his campaign a cadre of former aides to Bill Clinton and Al Gore, proving that the former NATO commander is anything but an outsider.

Clark was ushered into the race by a political odd couple. Clinton, who was President when Clark was commander of NATO’s Kosovo air war, said of his friend of four decades, “He is brilliant, brave and good. And he’s got a sack full of guts.” Filmmaker Michael Moore, who in 1999 condemned the bombing of Kosovo, circulated an open letter urging Clark to run and arguing that “we, the people, need a general to beat back those who have abused our Constitution and our basic sense of decency.” Like Clinton, however, Moore stopped short of an endorsement.

There are still doubts about Clark. He has a reputation as a hothead whose clashes with superiors and allies in Kosovo reportedly cost him his command. And his appearances as a TV commentator never marked him as the antiwar firebrand some reporters now describe (see www.fair.org/press-releases/clark-antiwar.html and Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel at www.thenation.com/edcut). Then there’s the matter of his doorstep appeal–will a take-charge general have the patience to listen to an Iowa farmer explain ethanol?–and his yet-to-be-established domestic agenda.

There is no doubt, however, that Clark is a phenomenon. He is already messing with the race’s other Vietnam veteran, John Kerry. And lots of grassroots Democrats really do believe that General Clark will be National Guard deserter George Bush’s nightmare.

But can Clark appeal enough to the party’s base to derail front-runner Howard Dean and the others? He’ll get points for describing the Iraq war as “a classic presidential-level misjudgment.” He’s pro-choice, pro-affirmative action and anti-Patriot Act. He launched his campaign saying he would “hold the Administration accountable” on jobs, the deficit, security fears and civil liberties. Republicans take comfort in the notion that Democrats won’t nominate a former general. But Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton, an “unrepentant progressive” who has met with Clark, says, “He sounds progressive. And he sounds like a winner. It may be late, but it’s not too late for Democrats to consider someone who offers them that combination.”