Image: Clark
Presidential hopeful Wesley Clark makes his pitch to the Democratic National Committee's fall meeting.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 10/3/2003 1:41:15 PM ET 2003-10-03T17:41:15

Is the latest entrant into the Democratic presidential race really a Democrat? In a speech to a meeting of the party’s national committee in Washington on Friday, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark insisted he was a genuine Democrat. But Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry used his speech to the party gathering to bash the general for having voted for Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984 and to question Clark’s commitment to Democratic beliefs.

Kerry told the meeting of the Democratic National Committee, “I’m running for president so I can stand up and fight for Democratic values.” He added, “This is not a commitment that I’ve made in the last few weeks. This is not a commitment that I’ve made in the last year or that I stumbled across in the course of this campaign. This has been a cause with me for a lifetime.”

Kerry did identify Clark by name.

The retired general declared himself a candidate for the Democratic nomination Sept. 17; Kerry has been in the race for more than a year. Both men are decorated veterans of the Vietnam War.

SPLIT ON NIXON

Alluding to his opposition to the Vietnam War in the 1970s — and to Clark’s admission that he’d voted for Nixon in 1972 — Kerry said, “I’m proud of having stood against Richard Nixon, not with him.”

Kerry also said, “I’m proud that I stood against Ronald Reagan and not with him when his intelligence agencies were abusing the Constitution.”

“I wasn’t one of those who could stand up there and say that I thought that Bush or Cheney or Rumsfeld were right for America. I thought they were wrong then,” Kerry said, in an allusion to Clark’s May 11, 2001, speech to the Pulaski County, Ark., Republican Party dinner in his hometown of Little Rock.

In that speech Clark praised Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and President Bush as a “great team.”

In his address to about 350 DNC members, which preceded Kerry’s by about an hour, Clark paid homage to various constituency groups within the Democratic Party, “I’m pro-choice, I’m pro-affirmative action, I’m pro-environment, pro-education, pro-health care and pro-labor. And if that ain’t a Democrat, I must be at the wrong meeting!”

The three-day DNC meeting, which began Thursday, is a vital test for Democratic presidential contenders since it brings together more than 800 “super-delegates” from across the nation, nearly 40 percent of the delegates needed to clinch the presidential nomination.

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All DNC members are “super-delegates” with an automatic vote at the party’s convention, as are Democratic senators, members of the House, governors, and other top officials and ex-officials, such as Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Buttressing his Democratic credentials, Clark also said, “I’ve campaigned for Democrats, given money to Democrats, voted for Democrats, including Al Gore in 2000, and I’m proud that his campaign was a winning campaign.”

This last remark was an apparent allusion to the belief among many Democrats that Gore won the state of Florida and was wrongly deprived of the presidency by the U.S. Supreme Court decision that halted a ballot recount in four heavily Democratic counties.

“When I left the Army I looked at both parties,” Clark recalled for the crowd. “The differences could not have been more clear: I believe in fiscal discipline and job creation, they (the Republicans) were for irresponsible tax cuts and corporate loopholes. I believe in engaging and working with our allies; they believe in putting up walls and calling names across the Atlantic.”

‘GREAT TO BE HOME’

“I realized there was only one place for me. And I just want to tell you, it is great to be home,” Clark declared to a loud round of applause.

He said the Democrats must welcome Republicans and independents to their ranks. “If the party is exclusive, if we close our doors to a single American, then we’re no better than the other guys.”

Kerry campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs said Kerry had opened the attack on Clark because he “believes it is important that Democrats understand who has been fighting for their concerns for 30 years and who decided to become a Democrat last week.”

Gibbs added, “The biggest job Wesley Clark is going to have is to convince Democrats that he is one of them.”

Clark campaign spokesman Kym Spell told MSNBC.com Friday that most voters in Arkansas are unaffiliated and said “the paperwork was faxed in today” for Clark to register as a Democrat. “We don’t think a piece of paper makes you a Democrat,” she added.

She interpreted Kerry’s attack on Clark as a sign of fear. “It scares a lot of politicians who’ve been in this race for quite a while that this man enters the race and suddenly creates a lot of excitement and momentum. That frightens them.”

ALL-PURPLE HEART TICKET

The Kerry-Clark tussle turned spiteful even as some Democrats are dreaming of an all-Purple Heart ticket, either with Kerry as the nominee and Clark as his running mate, or with Clark atop the ticket and Kerry as his running mate.

Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., who is backing Kerry, said, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to have the two candidates on our side, the nominee and the vice presidential nominee, both as veterans? Wouldn’t be wonderful to have two candidates (Kerry and Clark) between them with four or five Purple Hearts?

Tennessee Democratic Party Vice Chairwoman Bobbie Caldwell, who is neutral in the presidential race, brushed off the insinuation that Clark is not a genuine Democrat, with a brisk, “So what? That’s no big deal.”

Southern Democrats attending the DNC meeting Friday said Clark — with his career as a four-star general and his patriotic, bipartisan appeal — was well-suited to winning the Southern states.

No Democrat has ever won the White House without carrying at least a few Southern states. In 2000, Gore carried none.

Caldwell noted that Tennessee is a state where “no Democrat can get elected without Republican votes and no Republican can get elected without Democratic votes.” She said Clark had generated more enthusiasm in Tennessee for the Democratic presidential race than there had been before he jumped in two weeks ago.

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