- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2004

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Wesley Clark, the retired four-star general who fought to make himself politically pertinent as a Washington outsider, yesterday officially pulled out of the Democratic presidential-nomination contest.

“This is the end of the campaign for the presidency,” said Mr. Clark, who had rocketed to the top of the polls upon his late September entry. “But it’s not the end of the cause.”

He applauded the remaining major candidates and took a parting shot at President Bush, calling his foreign policy “fatally flawed.” It was a common theme of Mr. Clark’s stump speeches that emphasized “a higher standard of leadership” and noted that he would not have made war on Iraq.

“There is no party more committed to the American people than our party, my party, the Democratic Party,” said Mr. Clark, who was a registered independent at the time he entered the race. “I have nothing against the Republicans, but I am proud to be a Democrat.”

Once considered a formidable challenger to Mr. Bush, primarily because of a 34-year military career, Mr. Clark fell as quickly as he rose. He candidacy was helped by a glowing comment from a fellow Arkansan, former President Bill Clinton.

Mr. Clinton was quoted as saying at a private dinner party at his estate, “There are two stars in the Democratic Party: Hillary and Wes Clark.”

Mr. Clark failed to leverage the early buzz and the help of former Clinton campaigners into more than one victory in the first 14 nominating contests. His fate was sealed Tuesday when he finished third in primaries in Tennessee and Virginia, Southern states he had expected to propel his campaign.

He was the fifth Democrat to drop out of the race. Five remain: front-runner Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich and the Rev. Al Sharpton. A political novice, Mr. Clark opted to skip the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, where Mr. Kerry’s campaign ignited.

Mr. Clark delivered his farewell to a jammed ballroom at the Peabody Little Rock Hotel. About 250 people, many of them campaign volunteers and city’s political elite, shoehorned into a room to hear the farewell speech. It was the biggest crowd he had played to in the past several days, which were spent campaigning in Tennessee.

As he walked off the makeshift stage, Mr. Clark, unshaken and cool, was handed a bottle of water from a campaign aide, and the ballroom crowd cheered the local hero.

He took a long pull.

“That was hard,” Mr. Clark said.

Volunteers who staffed the Clark campaign’s Little Rock headquarters — many of them also Clinton acolytes — were puzzled that their man was forced to fold five months into the race.

“We thought it would be a matter of shaping the anti-Dean,” said David Hamilton, a civil engineer for the city and a Clark volunteer. “But this really happened so quickly, I don’t know what happened.”

Mr. Clinton never officially backed Mr. Clark, and political observers viewed the former president’s statement about the general, whom he removed as NATO commander, as a ploy to undermine the then high-flying Dean campaign. Several pundits said a victory by the anti-establishment Mr. Dean would have weakened the Clintons’ influence over the party.

Mr. Clark’s last three days as a candidate were a political blur of glad-handing, highway driving and perma-grin hustling.

Mr. Clark’s determination — a trademark of the man whose father died when he was 4 years old and whose mother raised him on a secretary’s wage — was contagious among his mostly youthful campaign aides.

In Memphis on Monday, Mr. Clark danced during a rally at B.B. King’s nightclub on Beale Street and prayed with black parishioners at the New Hope Baptist Church on Memphis’ south side. But even those extroverted overtures could not conjure enough votes to transform Gen. Clark into President Clark.

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