PORTSMOUTH, N.H. – Wesley Clark (search) said Wednesday he is the only Democratic candidate for president with the right mix of military, foreign policy and administrative skills, telling fellow veterans "I can walk the walk, not just talk the talk."
"I'm a veteran, I've done leadership at the highest levels, I've worked with heads of state, I'm from the South, my mother was a secretary, and I can run well across this country -- and I can beat George W. Bush," Clark said.
Clark is a retired four-star Army general and former NATO supreme allied commander. One of his major rivals, John Kerry (search), is a decorated Navy veteran of Vietnam as well as a four-term senator from Massachusetts.
The other major Democrats in the race -- former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search) and Sens. John Edwards and Joe Lieberman -- never served in the military. Kerry was tied with Dean in tracking polls in New Hampshire, and Clark was running third.
After Kerry won a surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses, which Clark bypassed to focus on New Hampshire, Clark suggested that the experience of a Navy lieutenant could not match that of a four-star general. He toned down such remarks Wednesday, telling reporters he wasn't trying to draw a distinction between his rank and Kerry's.
Clark advisers privately acknowledged the retired general's earlier comments about Kerry's military service could turn out to be a costly blunder.
"We were both young officers in Vietnam. We just pursued different paths of public service," Clark said Wednesday.
Clark reserved his criticism for Bush, reminding veterans at a VFW hall that Bush landed on an aircraft carrier last May to declare the end to major military operations in Iraq.
"When we dress up in military attire, we don't have to go out and rent a flight suit," he said.
Clark accused Bush of "shortchanging our veterans and their families," including not supporting enough funds for veterans' health care or Veterans Administration hospitals.
Later Wednesday, Clark picked up the endorsement of former New York Mayor David Dinkins, the city's first black mayor.
Clark also fielded questions from students at the University of New Hampshire at nearby Durham.
Asked about speculation that the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard might be in the next round of military base closings, Clark gave a guarded answer, saying he personally believed the yard, in Kittery, Maine, should be spared in the next round and believed it would be.
But he said he supported the base-closing process, under which presidents don't have a direct say. "You have to do it in a nonpolitical way," he said.