updated 2/9/2004 1:37:01 PM ET 2004-02-09T18:37:01

Presidential hopeful Wesley Clark said Monday it is a “moral outrage” that Americans are struggling financially and contended he is a Democrat uniquely qualified to right the nation’s economy.

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“I’m strong enough and I’m tough enough to make things happen, and I’ve proved it on the battlefield,” Clark told about 50 activists.

Clark campaigned on the economy and his military record on the eve of the Tennessee primary, which joins Virginia’s election as a measure of Southern power among the Democratic candidates. Polls in both states show front-runner John Kerry poised to build on a three-state sweep of weekend caucuses.

“People are struggling in this country, and I think it’s a moral outrage,” Clark said. “That’s my No. 1 issue: jobs.”

Asked about President Bush and his service in the Vietnam era, Clark said, “I know the charges about what he did or didn’t do are offensive.”

Bush, in a television interview Sunday, defended his service in the National Guard and dismissed allegations that he did not report for duty while assigned to a base in Alabama.

Clark said Monday: “There’s more and more discussion about this. It is an issue.” A West Point graduate, Clark served in Vietnam and was sent home after he was wounded.

The Tennessee and Virginia primaries will test Clark’s core campaign theme that he’s the Democrat who can win in the South, having grown up in Arkansas and built a distinguished military career that was capped when he became commander of NATO forces in Europe. In spite of the polls, Clark was upbeat about his chances.

“First of all, I don’t put too much stock in the polls,” he said Sunday. “The polls are being driven a lot by the national media sense of momentum and inevitability. It’s not inevitable.”

“What’s happening is, this election is flashing past so fast that for so many Americans they can hardly tell the difference between the candidates,” he said. “It’s my responsibility, as a beginner in elective politics, to try and explain what the differences are.”

Taxes and toughness
The latest distinction Clark was drawing with his rivals was on taxes and toughness. He argued that his wartime service makes him the Democrat who can withstand Republican criticism in the general campaign.

“I’m the one candidate in this race who can really bring in independents and Republicans,” he said. “There are a lot of people who voted for George W. Bush in 2000 who recognize they made a mistake.”

Sweeping across Tennessee, Clark touted his tax plan, which includes eliminating income taxes for families of four earning less than $50,000. “Mine will be $1,500 a year,” he said, compared what he called the average $100-a-year benefit promised by rivals Kerry and John Edwards.

Clark said Kerry’s proposal would help only middle-class families with kids in college.

“Most middle-class families don’t have kids in college,” Clark said. The plan by Edwards would offer help to those with dividend income, and “most middle-class families don’t have stock that has dividends,” he contended.

“Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards are good men, but they don’t have the leadership to stand up to millionaires,” said Clark. “They talk about middle-class tax cuts, but it’s just rhetoric. The majority of families would not get any tax cut from either of them and the average tax cut would be less than $100.”

Edwards responded, “He’s wrong.”

'Look at all the other parts'
He said Clark is looking at only one part of his tax plan, the section on dividends. “My middle-class tax cut plan will give thousand of dollars to tens of millions of families,” Edwards said. “He’s only looking at the deductions. You have to look at all the other parts together.”

Kerry hammers hard at his Vietnam War-hero background, and Clark spent time reminding voters that he has a military history of his own, and the toughness to resist a GOP assault.

“I think when you’re looking for somebody to go up against the Republican Party’s mean machine, you need someone who knows who he is and knows what he stands for and is tough enough to take it,” said Clark, offering a graphic description of his own service in Vietnam.

“I did come home in a stretcher,” he said. “I’m on a different mission today.”

Clark refused to entertain questions about whether he’d leave the race if he loses anywhere on Tuesday.

“We expect to win Tennessee and go right on,” he told reporters. Diverting to Wisconsin, Clark was asked if he would campaign there regardless of his Southern showing Tuesday. “That’s exactly right,” he replied.

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