By the end of June last year, I had met all the Democratic candidates for President. Each lent a unique, even critical facet to the debate; not one alone filled the frame with enough force to make me believe he or she could push Bush out of the picture. Nor did any one of them present the convincing stature of the leader we need to meet the challenges our country faces today. I decided to watch the winnowing process from the sidelines.

But decision-making by default and disengagement is not my style. From the perspective of state government, Bush can’t leave office soon enough. The former governor has turned his back on us, limiting our policy options by starving the states, all the while shamelessly fattening government in Washington and giving fat tax cuts to his rich supporters.

So, while in Little Rock for the National Lieutenant Governors Association meeting this past July, I invited Wes Clark to lunch. I spent two hours pummeling him with questions.

Arguably a President’s most important role is played out on the international scene. Clark towers over the other candidates here, already recognized and respected for his diplomatic credentials. He laid the groundwork for re-establishing strong relations with our allies as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander. He put his job on the line to stop the ethnic slaughter of Albanian Kosovars and did so without losing a single US soldier. He alone presents a smart, realistic exit strategy from Iraq.

I wanted to hear his vision for domestic governance. Because his candor in early interviews drew sharp questions about his legitimacy as a Democrat, I was checking for an internal consistency to his views. I came away impressed by his firm grasp of the issues we face, and by his commitment to strengthen this country from within. Clark, for example, doesn’t talk about national security without talking about jobs.

There was an important subtext to my examination. I do not intend to contribute to the election of one more defensive, arrogant male. When I challenged and provoked and interrupted Clark, I closely watched the former general. His reaction was uniformly one of intellectual curiosity. The man is “scary” smart. And gracious, and respectful.

Clark comes to this contest unburdened by partisan baggage. But he stands firm on issues of importance to Democrats. He’s pro-choice and pro-affirmative action; he believes in investing in public education and job creation. He’ll enforce and strengthen our environmental laws. Clark is an intuitive Democrat.

Now, as we hurtle into the primary season and voters across the country sequentially suffer the cacophony of political ads and intraparty sniping, note that Clark is hoisting large ideas as the banner under which we may gather. Take two issues: healthcare and tax reform. His healthcare plan will extend insurance to 31.8 million more Americans and cover every child in America. He’ll do all this by cutting costs, emphasizing preventive care and taking back the tax cuts Bush gave to taxpayers making more than $200,000 a year. And Clark’s Families First Tax Reform plan eliminates federal income taxes for families of four earning $50,000 or less. His plan gives a $2,250 tax credit per child to every family earning under $100,000. It pays for tax cuts by closing corporate loopholes and raising the marginal rate on income over $1 million a year. It’s about time someone stood up for the hardest pressed.

This first-time candidate is a quick study. And unlike most seasoned politicians, who huddle with pollsters and consultants before daring a decision or opinion, Clark follows his own compass. When he goes “off message,” it’s to integrate unwieldy but central concerns into the conversation. And when he’s done, he’s taken thorny issues like race or patriotism that often drive a wedge into communities and given us a way to think and speak about them as a people united.

That’s why I believe he’s the only declared Democrat who can campaign in the South and compete with the Republicans. As a Southerner himself, he understands the region as no other candidate does. When Clark travels from Virginia to Mississippi to the Florida panhandle, he frames his positions with the values that inform his vision for governance: hard work and individual responsibility, family, faith and patriotism. And the voters hear authenticity.

We hear it in the Midwest too, because he’s a straight-talking, independent sort of guy who doesn’t indulge in bombast. He is clearly of the middle class and understands our worries and our dreams. Clark is just the kind of leader we want at the helm. He has been endorsed by individuals and organizations ranging from Representative Charles Rangel, to “Father of Earth Day” Gaylord Nelson, to the Native American Times.

The stakes have never been higher. Whether we view this race through the lens of a state official looking for a partner in good government or of a once-valued foreign ally or of a struggling American family, we look for principled, confident leadership to make our country and our world more secure. As Clark’s more tenured opponents lose their footing, or put their foot in their mouth, watch the campaign of the man determined to continue his service to his country. This progressive is betting that Democrats–and then a general-election majority–will choose him in the voting booth.