IOWA CITY, Iowa, Sept. 20 — Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark reversed an earlier opinion that he likely would have voted for war in Iraq, telling a cheering college-town crowd the invasion was “a major blunder” he never would have supported.
While the use of force can occasionally be justified, he said, “It’s not a way to solve problems and resolve disputes. It’s very difficult to change people’s minds when you are bombing them and killing them.”
Clark sought to blunt a controversy that arose as he opened his campaign. The core is his resume as a retired four-star general with the credibility to challenge President Bush and oppose the war in Iraq.
Many of his backers expressed surprise when Clark told reporters he probably would have voted to authorize the use of force.
“At the time, I probably would have voted for it, but I think that’s too simple a question,” The New York Times quoted Clark as saying Thursday.
He then added, the Times said, “I don’t know if I would have or not. I’ve said it both ways, because when you get into this, what happens is you have to put yourself in a position. On balance, I probably would have voted for it.”
In a speech Friday to more than 1,000 people jammed into a lecture hall at the University of Iowa and in interviews, Clark underscored his opposition to the war, explaining: “There may be times when you may have to use force, but only as a last resort.
“Let’s make one thing real clear, I would never have voted for this war, never,” Clark said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I’ve gotten a very consistent record on this. There was no imminent threat. This was not a case of pre-emptive war. I would have voted for the right kind of leverage to get a diplomatic solution, an international solution to the challenge of Saddam Hussein.”
Clark’s initial remarks left members of his campaign team flummoxed.
“That caught me off guard a little. The general has been very critical of the war,” said George Bruno, a New Hampshire activist.
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Clark launched his bid for the Democratic nomination Tuesday with the type of media attention candidates crave, but early missteps underscore the dangers facing his late-starting campaign.
The former NATO commander and his campaign staff went back and forth in a single day on whether he will participate in a Democratic debate next week. Creating more confusion were Clark’s positive comments on the resolution that authorized the president to use U.S. military force to oust Saddam — remarks that were at odds with his opposition to the war.
Veteran Democrats noted that Clark is in the unusual position of trying to put a major presidential campaign in place and clearly lay out his positions in the glare of the media spotlight. His rivals have had months to hone their message below the political radar.
“If politics were theater, you get to open in New Haven (Conn.),” rather than on Broadway, said veteran Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, who warned of the dangers of “policy on the fly.”
The nine other declared Democratic presidential hopefuls have spent the last few months meeting with party activists, getting feedback on various issues and testing their campaign lines.
“I’m sure Howard Dean has tried a variety of things along the way,” said veteran Iowa activist Jeff Link. “By the time people began paying attention, he had it down pretty good.”
Iowa casts its votes in four months, giving Clark little time to smooth out the rough edges.
“The question is, is he ready to jump into a huge national campaign that’s just a few months away,” Link said. “That is a pretty good-sized organization with a lot of moving parts.”
In the AP interview, Clark sketched out a checkerboard of positions, saying he would leave in place a tax cut for middle-income Americans and indicating his support for gun-possession rights, although he supports a ban on assault weapons.
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