The last time Wesley Clark ran for office, he was a high school senior who put his head down on his desk and voted for his best friend, Steve Buchanan. After the student council ballots were tallied, Clark had lost -- by one vote.

Not that he shelved his mountainous sense of ambition, not in the least. Because the next office the 59-year-old camera-ready but controversial retired general would seek was merely president of the United States.

It is that duality -- the selfless Clark and the audaciously ambitious Clark -- that runs through the life of perhaps the most complicated, intriguing and little-known of the nine Democrats who want to sit in the Oval Office.

When Clark burst onto the national political scene this summer on the wind of an Internet-driven Draft Clark for President movement, the punditocracy wondered at first if he were a Democrat or a Republican. Then it wondered if after a military career that carried him move by move to the army's highest ranks, Clark would boldly launch his political career by starting at the top.

Clark is running on the hero myth, that of the vaunted warrior-statesman. He commanded NATO's troops to victory against Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo four years after helping to negotiate the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords on Bosnia. His is the pose of a latter-day Eisenhower.

But the myth has some cracks. Few Americans remember or ever understood the Kosovo conflict. There were no ticker-tape parades for the returning conquering general.

What's more, there is a tension and ambiguity to Clark's life story, a prickly side in tandem with his promise. And, much chipping away at Clark's myth has come from an unexpected quarter: the ranks of his former colleagues at the Pentagon. To some of them, Clark has an outsize ego and is an inveterate, self-absorbed climber.

One thing is clear: Clark always wanted to be a soldier, nothing else. His birth father was a politician, a Chicago ward boss, at that. But he died as Clark was about to turn 4, and the boy and his mother returned to her native Little Rock, Ark. As Clark grew into manhood, politics was usually the last thing on his mind. Success, in whatever pursuit, came first.

Clark won an appointment to West Point and finished first in his class in 1966. He then won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University in England, where he earned a master's degree in philosophy, politics and economics in 1968. He volunteered for duty in Vietnam and earned a Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart. While others came home disillusioned from the war, Clark stuck with the military, climbing the Army's ranks with a swiftness that culminated in four stars on his shoulders and command of NATO.

Clark also was a soldier-diplomat who helped negotiate peace in Bosnia during the peace conference in Dayton, Ohio, and was praised for his negotiating skills. Those skills were on display again in the run-up to the bombing campaign against Milosevic's Serbian troops.

In one key meeting at Milosevic's White Palace headquarters in Belgrade, Clark methodically wore down the Serbian strongman -- repeatedly luring him into downplaying the size of his ground forces, then disproving each misstatement with photographic evidence.

"Clark was a facts person," said a NATO diplomatic who was there. "He would argue with very specific facts and get what we needed to achieve."

When negotiations with Milosevic ultimately proved futile, Clark commanded NATO's first military action in 1999. Overseeing an aerial bombing campaign that lasted 78 days, Clark led forces that defeated Milosevic and his army without one American casualty.

If Clark's story ended with the Kosovo victory, his resume would be as pristine and appealing as the anecdote about the student council election at Little Rock's Hall High, where he provided the margin of his own defeat. Add to that a brief, post-military business career that earned him millions and a high-profile gig on CNN dissecting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in a pleasantly authoritative manner, and Clark the candidate begins to take shape.

On paper, he is a template for an ideal Democratic candidate to challenge President Bush. He is a Southerner with strong military credentials. He is telegenic and at ease before the cameras. He is socially liberal but otherwise moderate.

He also has help from high places. Many of the top political advisers to President Clinton, including Chicago congressman Rahm Emanuel, have joined his campaign, and the former president and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton have spoken admiringly of Clark.

But Clark's military record does not end with the successful conclusion of the Kosovo conflict. It ends, instead, with his abrupt ouster as NATO commander.

Less than a month after Clark vanquished Milosevic in June 1999, his bosses decided it was time Clark should leave. Defense Secretary William Cohen and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hugh Shelton offered up a technically feasible bureaucratic explanation: Clark's successor, Gen. Joseph Ralston, would face a loss of rank if he were not promptly assigned to the NATO post.

Clark didn't buy it, then or now.