Instead of coalescing around one or two strong possibilities, likely voters are withdrawing their support. Today, there are actually more undecided Democrats than there were just a few months ago. The number stood at 15 percent in May and 30 percent in early July. In a late July Zogby poll, almost half of those Democrats polled–48 percent–said they wish they had other candidates to choose from.

Democrats want somebody else to run. And that somebody could be Wesley Clark, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and current undeclared candidate for the Democratic nomination, who has assured supporters that he will announce his intentions sometime this month.

Clark’s appeal is obvious. Although he has yet to declare a party affiliation, his stance on key domestic issues–he’s pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, and pro-progressive taxation–clearly mark him as a Democrat. And while other Democratic contenders either took strong positions last fall against the war in Iraq or declared themselves convinced by the administration’s “evidence” that the threat was imminent and action was needed, Clark put forth an alternative strategy for how to deal with terrorism generally and Iraq specifically, based on using military alliances such as NATO, the model he made work in Kosovo. (See “An Army of One?” by Wesley Clark, September 2002). Prior to the Iraq invasion, he argued that military action would require international support to be sustainable, that fighting would continue after major military victories, and that while the case for war “could have been made,” the “element of urgency was always missing.” Although criticized shortly after the war began for these statements, Clark’s positions have been borne out, while both Democratic candidates and the president have struggled to defend their earlier stances.

Though he’s never held elected office, recent speeches have hinted at how Clark might employ his military experience as evidence of his capacity for domestic political leadership. Running large military enterprises, he likes to point out, requires providing services to tens of thousands of servicemen and women who, in the all-volunteer era, are free to quit. “We fought for better schools for the children of the men and women who served in Europe. We fought for better housing… for time off so people could be with their families… for better healthcare and health insurance,” said Clark in a recent speech to the New Democrat Network in Washington, D.C., sounding very much like a former governor. Clark also seems to have a preternatural ability to phrase his positions in a way that sounds authentic while allowing him to navigate the most treacherous political minefields. When asked about gun control, for instance, Clark said, “I have got 20-some-odd guns in the house. I like to hunt. I have grown up with guns all my life. But people who like assault weapons, they should join the United States Army–we have them.”

Arguably, Clark matches each of the strengths of the current crop of contenders, and then raises them one. His Army background–stretching from Vietnam to Kosovo–out-oomphs Kerry’s military record. His service as commander of NATO forces compares favorably to Dean’s executive experience as governor of a small New England state. He adds gravitas to Edwards’s aesthetic appeal, charisma to Lieberman’s thoughtfulness, and sincerity to Gephardt’s liberal policies.

That’s why more and more Democratic insiders are beginning to argue that–at least in theory–Clark is the best candidate to beat Bush in a general election. The problem, they say, is that it’s too late for Clark to make a primary run. Campaigns and Elections 101 teaches that it takes time to acquire name recognition, to build a field organization, to raise the funds to be competitive, to gain endorsements, and to acquire the myriad of intangible skills that it takes to run a winning campaign.

One of the first rules of campaigning is to establish name recognition. Candidates don’t pass out buttons and bumper stickers just for kicks, but because people don’t vote for someone they’ve never heard of. Sure, Wes Clark was once Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, just like Dwight Eisenhower. But Ike won World War II and became a national hero. Clark won Kosovo, a small conflict that hardly captured America’s attention. Nor, in terms of profile, does he compare to that other general in national life, Colin Powell. Indeed, in national polls, Clark has lower name recognition than the least-known candidate in the Democratic field, Dennis Kucinich.

But at the same time, his name I.D. isn’t bad for a guy who isn’t even in the race. Since May, a consistent 40 percent of New Hampshire poll respondents have said they’re aware of him. While the nine different Democratic candidates have been competing with each other, the bully pulpit of the White House, and water-skiing squirrels on local news for media attention, Clark appeared on national television dozens of times during the war in Iraq–not as a candidate, but as a nonpartisan military expert for CNN. Those appearances have built credibility with the activists and involved voters who watch cable news.

Formally announcing his candidacy would give Clark an immediate boost. And he’d likely get another one from the press. Candidate Clark would be something entirely new in a mostly bland field, with the kind of backstory–a “credible,” moderate, intellectual former general–over which reporters tend to swoon. If Clark can generate media interest the way Dean did for his fundraising prowess, he may not require months to build voter interest. “The news cycle is much faster these days, thanks to 24-hour cable, the Web, a metastasized pundit caste constantly searching for new angles, etc,” argues Slate’s Mickey Kaus, dubbing this phenomenon the “Feiler Faster Thesis.” “As a result, politics is able to move much faster, too, as our democracy learns to process more information in a shorter period and to process it comfortably at this faster pace.” If Laci Peterson can become a household name overnight, it’s hardly too late for Clark.

While voters wait much longer to engage in campaigns, once they do, they form opinions very quickly. Consequently a candidate without “it” can fail to generate name recognition regardless of the time spent on the national stage. John Edwards has been running for president for the past eight months (and has been an unofficial candidate for several years) and yet as recently as July, only 34 percent of likely Democratic voters had heard of him. Neither does familiarity necessarily breed popularity: Lieberman is by far the best-known Democratic candidate–a distinction that contributed to his early lead in New Hampshire polls–but his support has been dropping steadily as voters take a closer look at their options.

Clark’s empty campaign account is a more significant hurdle. Kerry has wined and dined, gripped and grinned his way to $16 million in donations, but this has been over nine long months of raising money at the pace of $75,000 each day in increments no larger than $2,000. That’s a heck of a lot of chicken dinners and bad jokes. It’s also time that Clark simply doesn’t have.

But he may not need it. While Democratic operatives like to opine that it’s too late for other candidates to enter the race because most traditional donors have already been tapped, the evidence suggests otherwise. Most of the leading candidates are falling behind their fundraising targets. Edwards, in fact, came within $500,000 of his second-quarter goal only because of donations from 22 of his own campaign workers on the last day of the filing period. That suggests that a significant number of Democratic donors are holding back and surveying the crowded field for signs of a winner. So far, most of the heavy hitters either have not given money to any campaign or have parceled out modest donations among several different candidates. Some have even gone so far as to avoid opportunities to give to current candidates: One Democratic donor described how he arranged to be out of town rather than attend a fundraiser for a contender he finds less than compelling. The money to launch a candidate to frontrunner status exists; donors are simply waiting to be convinced.

Can Clark harness this financial potential in just a few short months? Not if he has to make the rounds, hat in hand, to gather $2,000 here and $2,000 there. Money, however, tends to follow money, like a snowball rolling down a hill. After winning the New Hampshire primary–and thus demonstrating his viability–in 2000, John McCain raised $3.7 million in three weeks from online donations alone. More recently, Howard Dean has demonstrated the potential for candidates to turn grassroots support into dollars via the Internet. Dean “has shown the incredible potential of low-donor Internet fundraising,” says Democratic consultant Christian Sinderman. “Clark can replicate that.” In fact, Clark’s Internet presence is already second only to Dean. raised over $300,000 in the space of three weeks in July and Brent Blackaby of Draft Clark 2004 says that they have raised enough money to open six or seven field offices. “It takes a lot of people to get to that amount, and that’s without a candidate. This could be a core of people who are willing to give a small amount every quarter. And many of them have told us that they would give more money once Clark gets in the race.” Significant grassroots support could allow Clark to get a rapid infusion of seed money–which would help convince the high rollers that he’s for real.

The aspect of a Clark candidacy that evokes the most skepticism is the issue of field organization. Successful primary campaigns start months or years in advance, with dedicated campaign staff sent to each corner of Iowa and New Hampshire to learn the names of every precinct captain and local Rotary Club president. With nine candidates already in the race, conventional wisdom assumes that all the political talent and endorsements are already locked up, and that Clark would be forced to draw from the dregs to build an entire campaign organization from scratch.

This assumes, however, that all of the major candidates will stay in the race through the beginning of the primaries. It would only take Lieberman or Gephardt or Edwards dropping out for Clark to potentially inherit a seasoned, if hand-me-down, field structure and staff. Even if none of the candidates leave the race, some of their staff could leave them. Just as money follows money, talent follows potential. Some political operatives choose candidates based on personal loyalty; most want to work for a winner.

Endorsements work the same way. Clark volunteers have spent the summer lobbying key Democrats in more than 40 states to hold off on endorsements until Clark makes an announcement. In New Hampshire, a number of legislators have agreed to endorse Clark if he runs. But the most enthusiastic endorsements come from officeholders in states outside the traditional Democratic primary field. Matt Stoller, a former Kerry volunteer who now coordinates outreach for Draft Clark 2004, reports that “we’re seeing a lot of interest in Clark from red-state Democrats who don’t want to have to run 15 points ahead of the national party if Dean or Kerry is the standard-bearer.” Several former Texas congressmen are also ready to lend their names to the Clark cause on the theory that the general would help local candidates in a year that is already shaping up to be a tough battle for Democrats in that state. Donna Brazile, Al Gore’s former campaign manager, while frustrated with Clark’s delayed membership in the Democratic Party, concedes that “Wesley Clark has what it takes. He would be a splash.” And with that potential, Brazile insists, “He needs to get in the race. He’s a very attractive candidate.”

Clark just might get the biggest endorsement of them all. In a June interview, former President Bill Clinton told the Associated Press that he has been impressed by every aspect of Clark’s career and uttered these magic words: “I believe Wes, if he runs, would make a valuable contribution because he understands America’s security challenges and domestic priorities. I believe he would make a good president.” The statement has been judged by many political observers to be a non-endorsement endorsement, and a signal to Democratic donors and consultants to wait for Clark.

Most significantly, however, the conventional wisdom overlooks the field organization that has already developed in anticipation of Clark’s candidacy. “We’re taking the grassroots support,” Blackaby says, “and putting some structure around it. Our objective is to have a functioning organization that Clark can immediately tap into and augment.” Field coordinators are already in place in over 40 states, including such key targets as Iowa, South Carolina, California, and Florida. Nearly three dozen volunteers traveled to New Hampshire over the Fourth of July weekend to open the campaign’s first field office; the national headquarters was launched in Little Rock at the beginning of August. Clark supporters are running radio and television ads in a number of states, and have set up political action committees. And while the letters encouraging Clark to run include many from those who describe themselves as previously apolitical or unaffiliated voters, the Clark organizers are not pie-in-the-sky dreamers who like to root for the underdog. In recent weeks, a veteran political correspondent and the DNC’s former chief counsel have signed on to manage communications strategy and legal issues. Many in the effort to draft Clark come with experience on Clinton/Gore campaigns and some in the field, such as John Oeffinger who has organized Clark supporters in 10 Texas cities, have spent decades in the Democratic trenches. Clark could also draw on some untapped talent to organize his campaign–he has been in contact with John Weaver, the mastermind behind John McCain’s breakaway campaign who was exiled from the Republican Party by Karl Rove and now works for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The trump card of political wags is the increasingly front-loaded primary system. With Iowa and New Hampshire so quickly followed by polls in South Carolina, Arizona and now Michigan, Missouri, Washington, and elsewhere, the process gives a big boost to a candidate who does well early and makes it difficult for those who lag behind to ever catch up. And that would seem to bode well for the Gephardts and Deans who have been crisscrossing Iowa and New Hampshire to secure early votes.

But the front-loaded primaries have also created a do-or-die scenario–if a maverick places well in a few early primaries, momentum can shift in the blink of an eye, as it did for McCain in 2000–bringing with it attention from the press. It is entirely possible to peak too early in the campaign season; it can’t be said that starting late automatically hurts a candidate’s chances, particularly if he or she demonstrates real appeal.

Wes Clark is almost completely untested as a candidate. He has zero experience in the punishing, hand-squeezing, backslapping world of retail politics where most campaigns are won and lost. And Clark’s months of teasing indecision have strained the patience and raised the doubts of even his most fervent admirers.

But if there’s one thing that unites virtually all Democrats–from grassroots activists to elected officials–it’s an overwhelming desire to unseat George W. Bush from the White House. More than any other time in the recent past, Democrats really want to win. And that sentiment can have a practical effect. Thus far, the party’s establishment has not coalesced behind any one candidate. If party leaders got it into their head that Clark was the best hope to beat Bush, there is much they could do to help the former general. They can provide him with endorsements, lend him organizational support, and direct campaign contributions his way. And should the race remain tight as the convention approaches, party regulars–who, as so-called “superdelegates,” comprise 37 percent of the convention vote–could also provide Clark with the margin he may need for victory. Desperation, after all, imposes its own form of unity. Four years ago, angry and frustrated after eight years of a Democrat in the White House, once-bickering Republicans decided to cast their lot not with the senator whose “turn” it was or with the endearing maverick. They went with the guy who could win. Democrats may soon do the same.

Amy Sullivan

Amy Sullivan is a Chicago-based journalist who has written about religion, politics, and culture as a senior editor for Time, National Journal, and Yahoo. She was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2004 to 2006.