Former President Clinton says Democrats can reclaim the White House in 2004 if they present clear arguments to the public explaining why they should be in charge, and stop bickering among themselves.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday night, Clinton said the Democratic candidates are off to a good start, but face pressures of limited time to develop their issues, a fast-moving campaign and a crush of election contests early next year.

"I think on balance they're doing pretty well," Clinton said of the Democratic candidates. "They need to keep making their philosophy clear."

Clinton made the comments after a private session with the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist Democratic think tank that helped propel him to the White House.

When he came out of the session, Clinton said he had advantages in his successful 1992 run against the president's father that the Democrats won't have this time.

"We had been out for 12 years," he said. "The Democratic Leadership Council had been working on new ideas. All of this had been building up."

Clinton said he and one of his 1992 opponents, the late Paul Tsongas, a senator from Massachusetts, put out detailed issue books spelling out their positions.

"That played a major role in our success," Clinton said.

The 2004 Democratic candidates will have to incorporate strong positions on national security as they develop a clear overall philosophy spelling out why they are running for president, Clinton said. Democrats should not cede the national security issue to Republicans, he said, whether on defense strategy, weapons systems or foreign policy.

But he said it is important for Democrats to stop fighting among themselves and refocus their criticism on their eventual foes — President Bush and the Republicans.

If the current crop of candidates is judged on what they accomplished before running for president, the field is strong, Clinton said. And some of those accomplishments contradict the image candidates have earned in the presidential race, he said.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is described as very liberal by many following the presidential race, Clinton said, "but look at what he did as governor of Vermont."

Clinton described Dean's accomplishments with health care in his home state and his proposal to promote a national health care plan with a modest price tag as "New Democrat" positions. He was referring to the moniker the Democratic Leadership Council puts on Democrats who can blend moderate ideas that appeal to swing voters with traditional Democratic themes.

And Clinton didn't hesitate when he was asked the overriding question: Can Bush be beaten?

"You can always be beaten," Clinton said with a smile. "I could have been beaten in 1996."