Matt Towery

Recent polls show retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark leading the race for the Democratic nomination for president. But Clark's early performance suggests he has a long way to go before he can be considered battle ready to take on George W. Bush.

Not everyone sees it that way. Many political pundits believe Republicans are bashing Clark because he poses the greatest threat to Bush in a general election contest. But the off-the-record opinion among most GOP strategists is that Howard Dean and his charismatic, grassroots campaign is the one that's truly catching on. Still others harbor fears that Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, will belie her reputation in GOP circles as an overrated threat and jump into the fray herself.

As for Clark, I have to question whether his apparent lead -- virtually instantaneous with the announcement of his candidacy -- is real. First, I've yet to be convinced most Americans even know who he is. He's never been a household name, and if he is one now, it's mainly because some media are force-feeding him on the nation. More significantly, anyone who has heard his vague positions on the issues, both foreign and domestic, must recognize that Clark is not yet ready for prime time.

Nevertheless, many recent surveys show Gen. Clark ahead of the field of Democratic presidential hopefuls. So it's only fair to view his candidacy in light of its infant status, and to consider the good general's chances of winning the big battle in November 2004.

His top selling point is that he adds a needed dose of middle-of-the-road moderation to the Democratic field. Paradoxically, that's also his problem. Democratic Party leaders these days don't seem to abide any form of moderation. In fact, top Democratic operatives spent much time last week in trying to paint Clark as a Republican wolf in sheep's clothing. Partly because of it, Clark was forced to kick off his first debate appearance with a pre-emptive pledge of his devotion to the party and the left-leaning positions for which it stands.

Yes, Clark is a general. That would seem to automatically blunt the charge leveled at many of his Democratic opponents, including former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, that they are unpatriotic for having opposed the war in Iraq. In truth, however, Clark's views on the war seem muddled. He might as well play a toned-down hawk on the issue, though. Dean seems to have already captured the hearts of most Democrats who passionately opposed the American-led invasion.

Matt Towery

Matt Towery is a pollster, attorney, businessman and former elected official. He served as campaign strategist for Congressional, Senate, and gubernatorial campaigns. His latest book is Newsvesting: Use News and Opinion to Grow Your Personal Wealth. Follow him on Twitter @MattTowery