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The Clark factor


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From the Wolf Blitzer Reports staff in Washington:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- His announcement last week came as little surprise to most political observers.

"I'm here to announce that I intend to seek the presidency of the United States of America," retired Gen. Wesley Clark told a group of supporters in Little Rock, Arkansas.

His new surge is another matter. Meet Gen. Wesley Clark, front-runner.

In the latest CNN/USA-Today/Gallup Poll, registered voters were presented with a hypothetical head-to-head match-up and asked their choice for president. Wesley Clark led President Bush 49% to 46%, within the 3.5% margin of error.

CNN Polling Director Keating Holland says a number of factors contribute to Clark's popularity. "Part of it is his resume, part of it is his announcement bounce, part of it may simply be that he's a fresh face. He is, after all, the flavor of the month."

This from a candidate without huge name recognition. Nearly half the general public surveyed is not familiar with Gen. Clark.

Still, political experts say Clark's catapult is not the most surprising thing about this poll. "Bush is sinking, Clark is surging," says Bill Schneider, a CNN senior political analyst. "Clark picked exactly the right moment to make his announcement."

Indeed, the same CNN/USA-Today/Gallup Poll shows President Bush falling fast. According to this poll, the president has a 50% approval rating, the lowest of his presidency and a 10% drop from last month.

His handling of Iraq and the economy are hurting the president in the polls and putting his administration on the defensive.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts has been one of many vocal critics in recent days. "We don't have a postwar policy," he said Monday. "It is being made up every single day, and as a result our men and women are a shooting gallery over there. People want answers. They're not getting them from this administration."

Wesley Clark

But U.S. administrator for reconstruction in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, defended the U.S. course of action before the Senate on Monday, saying, "We can not simply pat the Iraqis on the back, tell them are lucky to be rid of Saddam and ask them to go find their place in a global market to compete without the tools of competition. To do so would invite economic collapse, followed by political extremism and a return to terrorism."

Timing aside, is there an "Ike Factor" with Wes Clark? A parallel exists between Clark and another former supreme allied commander in Europe, who rode in on a white horse in 1952 and captured the White House.

According to CNN's Keating Holland, that theory may hold some water. "He does particularly well with those over 65, for example. And that's the crowd that remembers Gen. Eisenhower. That's the 'Greatest Generation' that sort of stands up and salutes when they hear the world 'general'," says Keating.

According to this poll, right now, Gen. Clark may not even need to be Eisenhower.

The numbers for his Democratic rival, John Kerry, are almost equally impressive. They fall within the margin of error, but Kerry still holds a 48% to 47% lead over George W. Bush.

This is less than encouraging news for an incumbent making that historically dangerous political gamble on a war's outcome and an economy's recovery.

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