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Retired four-star Gen. Wesley Clark parachuted into the Democratic presidential race on Wednesday, overshadowing frontrunner Howard Dean and the other contenders. True, Clark has never been elected to any office, not even to a local zoning board. But Clark holds a unique portfolio of assets: a cool, telegenic persona, combat experience, high-level diplomatic work in Yugoslavia, and command of large military organizations.

Clark makes his Demo Derby debut in third place. Our assessment is that the retired general has potential to speak with peerless authority on the threats that face the United States and to make his competititors look a bit amateurish by comparison.

But whether he can handle questions on prescription drugs for the elderly or subsidies for U.S. farmers is still in doubt. Within the next few weeks, he needs to raise millions of dollars and put “boots on the ground” by hiring field organizers in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and other primary states.

Dean, meanwhile, continues move toward a big fund-raising triumph at the end of the third quarter looming on Sept 30.

But Dean’s abrasive side began to come out in the past week as he tussled with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “Where did you get this, ‘I was a strong supporter of NAFTA?’ I never did anything about it,” Dean snapped at Stephanopoulos.

Dean’s strategists can take comfort in the idea that Clark’s candidacy deprives Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry of his once-unique status in the Dem field as a decorated Vietnam War combat veteran.

Kerry falls back in the pack in our Demo Derby ranking, due to Clark’s entry. Kerry is trying to make Dean’s proposed repeal of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts the defining issue.

“Howard Dean wants to correct George Bush’s economic mistake by penalizing the middle class,” Kerry charged Wednesday.

Rep. Dick Gephardt and Sen. Joe Lieberman continue to hold Dean’s feet to the fire. Along with Kerry they’ll point out any Dean reversals or inconsistencies.

Meanwhile, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, Florida Sen. Bob Graham and the other contenders need to say or do something to make a riveting impression in next week’s CNBC debate.

Apart from anti-war, anti-NAFTA, anti-WTO candidate Rep Dennis Kucinich, none of the second-tier contenders has yet staked out their own distinctive place in this fray.

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