Clark touts record blasts Bush


Photo by Tom Wilson
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark campaigned in Bristol on Friday as voters iin Tennessee and Virginia prepare to go to the polls on Tuesday.

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Retired Gen. Wesley Clark railed at both President Bush and Democratic candidates he term "Washington insiders" while stumping in Tennessee and Virginia on Friday evening.
   "I've lived it and I've done it," Clark told a standing room only crowd who packed the State Line Grill on State Street.
   Clark and fellow Democratic candidate John Edwards were both stumped in Bristol seeking to win supporters from both sides of the two states where their viability as candidates hinges.
   Clark's campaign has sought to market his status as a military leader and political outsider set him apart from other Democrats. He renewed criticism of Edwards and front-runner John Kerry as part of the political power structure of Washington.
   He has been a staunch critic of the Bush administration's handling of the invasion of Iraq. He reiterated his opposition Friday pointing out that the decision to put American troops in harm's way only came as a last resort.
   "One thing everybody who has been there knows, you don't do it if there is any other option," Clark told supporters. "We will keep the United States military force the strongest in the world and we will not forget our veterans."
   Clark also criticized the actions of President Bush as a military leader and his economic policies. He said as a soldier, he did not appreciate the president using the U.S. military for political gain. "I don't think is proper for the president of the United States to dress up in a Navy flight suit and prance around on the deck of an aircraft carrier," said Clark referring to President Bush's arrival on the USS Abraham Lincoln in May of 2003. President Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard.
   Clark said Edwards was the only Democratic senator who voted against closing corporate tax loopholes to prevent across-the-board cuts to veterans health care in 1999. Clark also said that same year, Edwards voted against adding $1.3 billion in funding for the Veterans Administration. Edwards who also appeared in Bristol Friday said Clark's assertions were "wrong" and defended his voting records on veterans issues.
   With less than one week before presidential primaries in both states, Bristol's strategic location drew Democrats from both states as well as citizens looking for a glimpse at two men featured on every news channel on cable. Both events were marked by strong turnouts, handshakes and a sure upswing in royalties for John Cougar Mellencamp, whose music served as the backdrop at both candidates' rallies.
   Clark won the Oklahoma Primary on Feb. 3 and ran second to Edwards in South Carolina. He has earned 82 delegates but trails Kerry, Edwards and Howard Dean. However, both men could be running for second place.
   Kerry rolled to big wins in the Washington state and Michigan caucuses on Saturday. Tennessee and Virginia could prove to be the last stands for Clark and Edwards in their bid to win the Democratic nomination. The long-term viability of he and Edwards hinges on their performances Tuesday.
   While the delegate counts grow, the campaign war chests for most candidates continue to shrink. In his year disclosure statement filed with the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday, Clark reported raising $13.4 million in campaign contributions with over $3 million still available. Kerry has taken in better than $25 million in contributions and spent over $23 million according to his disclosure report.
   Clark, 59, was raised in Arkansas and graduated first in his class from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. A decorated Vietnam veteran, Clark was shot four times by an AK-47 while leading an infantry unit in Vietnam. Clark would go on to serve as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO.
   "I liked his message of inclusion for all Americans," said Dawn Figueiras of Bristol, Tenn., after the rally. Much of the audience at Clark's rally also attended an Edwards rally held at the Bristol YWCA earlier in the day. At both events, people expressed disillusionment with the Bush administration and hope a viable Democratic candidate could challenge the President in November.
   "I think we are at a trying point in this country," said Paul Meade of Bristol, Va., an avowed independent who said he had tired of the Bush administration's economic policies. He said the skyrocketing national debt and unresolved problems with health care were two issues where President Bush had lost his focus.
   "I just hope one of these Democrats is really up to hit him on every point," he said.