NEW YORK – In his first campaign speech on a major policy issue, Democratic presidential hopeful Wesley Clark (search) unveiled his economic plan Wednesday with a blast at what he called the "failed Bush economy."
"Mr. Bush said in his State of the Union (search) address, 'My economic security plan can be summed up in one word -- jobs.' Well, now we can sum it up in one word -- failure," the newest candidate in the 10-person footrace told supporters in a park along the East River in New York City.
If the retired four-star Army general's biggest political assets are his military record and national security credentials, then his biggest liabilities may be lack of political experience and command of domestic issues.
Saying his policies are part of his promise to protect America from both economic and foreign threats, Clark's strategy is to counter his inexperience in politics by presenting even his pocketbook initiatives through the prism of his 30-year military career.
"Protecting the country in the 21st century requires more than a strong military. It requires a strong economy that generates jobs, economic growth, and the revenues we need to defend American lives and property -- wherever they are in the world," he said.
Hoping to beef up his domestic portfolio, Clark made a 20-minute speech in which he spent half of the time calling for the repeal of $100 billion in tax cuts recently passed for the wealthiest Americans.
Clark said he would use $40 billion for homeland security, $40 billion for cash-strapped states and $20 billion for economic stimulus.
"I will not increase the deficit. It simply moves $100 billion from tax cuts for households making more than $200,000 a year and directs it into job-creating funds that will help middle-income and working class families," Clark said.
Clark's revealed his economic plan one day before his first appearance at a candidate debate, one that happens to be focused on economic issues. The plan falls somewhere between those of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search) and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt (search) -- who would repeal all the tax cuts enacted by President Bush -- and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search), North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search) and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (search) -- who would leave more of the cuts intact.
Kerry, who picked up the endorsement of the International Association of Firefighters -- making him the only other candidate beside Gephardt to win a national labor nod, declined to comment on Clark's plan. Instead, he urged Dean to abandon a full repeal of the Bush tax cuts, saying many of them help the middle class.
"I'm going to protect them and I hope Gov. Dean will join us in that effort," Kerry said.
For his part, Dean spoke to national magazine editors in New York City, and at once both acknowledged and dismissed Clark's rapid rise.
"I'm not sure I still have the buzz since General Clark's splashy entrance into the race," he said. "I don't think his rush to the top of the polls has anything more to do with putting the word 'new' on a box of Tide [detergent]."
Only eight days into his campaign, 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 comprising veterans of the Clinton-Gore administration.
The debate Thursday offers Clark's rivals their first chance to slow his momentum. Dean has already chided Clark for flip-flopping on his position about whether he would have voted for the congressional resolution permitting the use of force against Iraq.
Kerry is likely to question the general's commitment to the Democratic Party. During a brief news conference Wednesday, Kerry said Clark will have to answer for his past support of Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
"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."
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."
Clark spokesman Mark Fabiani fired back: "The only reason Senator Kerry wants to discuss how General Clark voted 25 years ago is that Senator Kerry himself apparently lacks a strong message about the future."
If Wednesday's address is any guide, Clark's debate strategy will be to frequently mention his Army career and sprinkle his remarks with military metaphors while promising a "New American Patriotism." The slogan captures his promise to be the one candidate who can criticize Bush's foreign policies without looking soft on terrorism.
"Some ask, 'How can you criticize the president at a time of war?' I answer: 'How can you not?'"
Fox News' Carl Cameron and the Associated Press contributed to this report.