Clark Bid Could Be Aided By South Carolina Veterans

Wesley Clark (search)'s status as a former four-star Army general has piqued the interest of some military veterans in this key primary state, but that doesn't mean the Democratic presidential hopeful will automatically get their vote.

"It's a wide, wide open race. I like Clark fairly well, but I feel I don't know enough about him," said Terry Kelly, a Vietnam veteran who says he is an independent voter.

Clark has been spending more time in South Carolina and said he intends to pay more attention to intrigued voters such as Kelly - one of 420,000 veterans in a state that holds the South's first Democratic presidential primary Feb. 3.

During a recent campaign stop, Clark talked about his pride in being a veteran. "I'm going to reach out to veterans' organizations through local communities, through the media and with my hand outstretched to thank 'em," Clark said after addressing a standing-room-only crowd at the University of South Carolina's law school.

George W. Bush easily won the state in 2000, and "most veterans in South Carolina tend to vote Republican," said Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University.

"But Clark has an appeal and credentials that other Democratic candidates don't," Huffmon added. "Clark has the chops. ... Here is a guy who has the credibility to talk about military and foreign affairs in a way we haven't seen Democrats do in a long time."

A late entry in the crowded Democratic race, Clark recently replaced North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search) - who was born in South Carolina - in the top spot in a state poll. The American Research Group poll (search) of 600 likely voters showed Clark with the support of 17 percent and Edwards second with 10 percent. Thirty-six percent were undecided.

Still, a number of veterans find Clark's sharp criticism of the Bush administration's policy in Iraq too much to swallow. Last month, Clark laid the blame for the Sept. 11 attacks at Bush's feet, dismissing the notion of blaming low-level intelligence officers and arguing that the president must take responsibility.

"I don't believe in bashing people. In all my years of service, you weren't allowed to talk about your commander in chief like that," said Rick Bucknell of Irmo, S.C. The 83-year-old retired Marine said he will back Bush again in the general election, no matter who wins the Democratic nomination.

Rival Democrats accused Clark of flip-flopping in his first week of his campaign when he said he would have voted for the congressional resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, then said he would have opposed it. Clark has been outspoken in assailing Bush's postwar record, although he has said more U.S. forces may be required in the Persian Gulf.

"When it comes to our force levels, it's possible that some may need to be added initially to create the right mix of capabilities," he said recently.

Clark's candidacy has also elicited tough comments from former military colleagues who clashed with the ex-NATO commander over policies during the war in Bosnia.

Kelly said that could be an asset.

"One thing about military guys. They can't quit and go home. They want to get through things. If Clark shows he's got some good ideas, he could be a very positive candidate," said the 56-year-old accountant.

Tom Gower, a Democrat and retired bookstore owner, said he has not yet made up his mind. The World War II (search) Army veteran said military experience does not mean he automatically supports a candidate.

"The military is not a particularly democratic organization. I've always been pleased that this country has a civilian president who is the commander in chief," said Gower, 80.

One Clark rival, Sen. John Kerry (search) of Massachusetts, officially declared his candidacy for the Democratic nomination in front of the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown near Charleston, S.C., in September. But the decorated Vietnam veteran got support from just 4 percent of South Carolina voters in the October poll.

"We're in the South, and this state is working class. Kerry has a lot of trouble here shaking his liberal, Northeast, Boston Brahmin image," Huffmon said.

Several members of American Legion Post 3 said they take military background into account but also examine a candidate's policy positions.

Clark's military background is "a plus. ... I would like to hear more about him," said Richard Duncan, a retired Army command sergeant major. "As for Bush, the economy is his administration's fault. And foreign policy is going to hell in a handbasket," said Duncan, 70.