After largely giving him a pass in Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate, rival candidates unloaded Friday on Wesley Clark, taking issue with his expression of support for the Bush administration’s policies in a speech two years ago.
THE DEBATE THURSDAY opened with a question to Clark, a retired Army general who only recently announced that he was a Democrat, about the May 11, 2001, address in which he praised President Bush and top administration officials. Clark also acknowledged supporting Republican President Ronald Reagan.
Clark replied that he had taken “an incredible journey” since 2001 and was now a strong Democrat. “We elected a president we thought was a compassionate conservative. Instead, we got neither conservatism or compassion,” he replied.
The nine other candidates largely did not react to that during the debate, preferring to focus their fire on surprise front-runner Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont. But that changed on Friday.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut ignited a spate of post-debate recrimination Friday, issuing a statement accusing Clark of taking “a journey of political convenience, not conviction,” from the Republican ranks to the Democratic Party.
“I was fighting [Bush’s] reckless economic strategy while Wes Clark was working to forward the Republican agenda by raising money for the Republican Party,” Lieberman said.
In the 2001 speech, delivered to a Republican group in Arkansas, Clark lavishly praised Bush and much of his senior staff.
“I’m very glad we’ve got the great team in office, men like Colin Powell, Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Paul O’Neill — people I know very well — our president, George W. Bush,” Clark said in the speech, a videotape of which was circulating this week. “We need them there, because we’ve got some tough challenges ahead in Europe.”
CLARK’S ‘BIGGEST PROBLEM’
Like the other candidates, Dean passed up the opportunity during the debate to criticize Clark’s recent political conversion. “It’s up to the voters in the Democratic Party to determine” if Clark is worthy of representing the party, he said.
But Friday, he told reporters in Washington that “the biggest problem [Clark is] going to have is convincing people he’s a Democrat.”
Later, Dean questioned Clark’s judgment in praising Cheney and Rumsfeld in the speech. “I think George Bush is not up to being president, and I’m concerned that General Clark didn’t recognize that,” Dean said in an interview with The Associated Press.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan would not comment when asked about Clark’s 2001 speech, saying, “I’m not going to get into the middle of a primary between 10 people right now.”
But Robert Gibbs, a spokesman for the campaign of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, was blunt: “For a lot of Democrats, these remarks will be disqualifying,” he said.
CLARK CAMP: LIEBERMAN DESPERATE
Mark Fabiani, a spokesman for Clark, responded: “I think Senator Lieberman is an increasingly desperate candidate, and it’s unfortunate that instead of articulating a vision for the future as General Clark has with his ‘New American Patriotism,’ Senator Lieberman is attacking other Democrats.”
Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee, has languished in key state polls and fund-raising, although his national poll rating is relatively high.
During the debate, Clark did not disavow his earlier remarks and instead said he was pro-abortion rights, pro-affirmative action, pro-environment and pro-health care, adding, “That’s why I am proud to be a Democrat.”
Clark tried to laugh off the controversy while campaigning Friday in New Hampshire, saying, “Everyone’s entitled to a few youthful indiscretions.”
Clark told a handful of diners at the Merrimack Restaurant in downtown Manchester that he was “a real Democrat, a new Democrat,” and that he could broaden the party’s appeal.
“I’m going to bring a lot of new people into this party, and together we’re going to move forward,” he said.
LATEST POLL STANDINGS
In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out Wednesday, Clark, at 16 percent, was essentially tied with Dean, at 17 percent, and Lieberman, at 16 percent. The poll had Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts slightly behind them, at 11 percent, and all others in single digits.
Clark, however, is far behind in key early voting states. Public polls and private campaign surveys put him in single digits in Iowa and New Hampshire, although he may be faring better in South Carolina.
Clark has emerged as a threat to the field’s top-tier candidates because of his military experience, an Internet-driven grass-roots organization and a solid political team composed of veterans of the Clinton administration.
Clark’s credentials had been questioned Wednesday by Dean and Kerry.
Kerry said before the debate that Clark would have to answer for his past support of Reagan and President Richard Nixon.
“It’s for Democrats to judge how they feel about people’s lives and history,” Kerry said. “But while he was voting for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, I was fighting against both of their policies.”
Kerry spoke after accepting the backing of the International Association of Fire Fighters, the latest in a string of endorsements he picked up this week.
Clark, who toyed with both parties after leaving the military in 2000, publicly declared himself a Democrat for the first time this month. By contrast, Kerry said, “I’m confident that a lifetime of being a progressive, fighting Democrat will make a difference in this race.”
Dean told ABC that he was surprised that Clark voted for Republicans. Asked whether Clark was a true Democrat, Dean replied, “I think that we have to find out about that.”
Clark was also questioned earlier about his economic proposals, some of which mirror initiatives already offered by Kerry and other rivals in promoting middle-class tax relief.
It’s “probably no surprise that a newly minted Democrat with no experience in domestic policy would unveil an economic plan that is most notable for its similarity to the plans of others in this race,” said Robert Gibbs, a spokesman for Kerry.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.