MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Wesley Clark (search), trying to brush off a distraction Saturday as he engaged Democratic presidential rivals in a Southern showdown, backed off remarks that some in the Clinton administration wanted to end the 1999 Kosovo bombing campaign for political reasons.
Front-runner John Kerry (search), North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search) and Clark were campaigning in Tennessee and Virginia through the weekend, ahead of primaries in those states Tuesday. Kerry was in a strong position to sweep weekend contests in Michigan, Washington and Maine, states where his opponents put up little fight.
In Tennessee, country music singer George Jones (search) lent his voice to a Clark radio ad debuting Sunday. The native Tennessean tells listeners, "Like Wes Clark, I'm no career politician, but I know a leader when I see one."
Edwards told an overflow crowd at the University of Memphis that President Bush is out of touch. "He lives a sheltered existence," he said. "He needs to be out here in the real world doing what I'm doing." An Elvis Presley impersonator was in the audience.
Clark tried to shrug off remarks that surfaced Saturday, from a 2000 interview, when he alleged that certain unidentified members of the Clinton administration were in a rush to end the Kosovo war so the conflict would not hurt Al Gore's presidential campaign. Clark was the military officer in charge of prosecuting the war, as NATO supreme commander. Gore was vice president.
In the interview with NATO's official historian, Clark said: "There were those in the White House who said, 'Hey, look, you gotta finish the bombing before the Fourth of July weekend. That's the start of the next presidential campaign season, so stop it. It doesn't matter what you do, just turn it off. You don't have to win this thing, let it lie."
Campaigning in western Virginia on Saturday, Clark said President Clinton and his national security adviser, Sandy Berger, "were totally committed to this operation. I never had any political pressure to do anything but succeed."
Clark said his comments in 2000 were "a stream-of-conscious dictation" with a historian. "I had to assemble all of my memory and think about what had actually happened. It was such a complex period of time."
Clark was pushing for a larger NATO role in the war at the time. But as it turned out, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic agreed in June 1999 to the West's demands for the pullout of all Serbian forces and deployment of Western peacekeepers in Kosovo.
The retired general told a rally at a Roanoke, Va., biscuit shop that he lived four times in the state during his military career, and that he is new to politics. "Nobody owns me," he said.
Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, kept his focus on attacking Bush and tried to stay above the fray as Clark and Edwards intermittently bickered.
Kerry recently spoke dismissively of the South's political value to Democrats, saying they don't need it to win the presidency. He sang a different tune in Nashville.
"This administration is busy trying to paint everybody else as out of touch, out of synch, somehow out of the mainstream," he said Saturday. "But let me tell you something: I'm not worried about coming down South and talking to people about jobs, schools, health care and the environment. I think it's (Bush) who ought to worry about coming down here."
Kerry is the only candidate advertising in the District of Columbia, reaching Democrat-heavy northern Virginia. Howard Dean is devoting most of his efforts to Wisconsin, which holds a primary Feb. 17. That could become a multi-candidate contest if Clark and Edwards do well in Tuesday's races.
But first Clark and Edwards, two candidates who have tended to take the campaign high road, had to survive the weekend, after the back-and-forth barbs of recent days between the two campaigns peaked Friday. Clark argued that his rival turned his back on veterans and Edwards replied that the allegations were "baseless, false attacks."
Democratic strategists said Clark and Edwards have few options left. They can't afford to lose in the South on Tuesday, and Kerry is on a hot streak -- winning seven of nine contests. Traditionally, the best way to curb a front-runner's momentum is with attacks. But Clark and Edwards are wary of the lesson learned in Iowa, where voters punished candidates who went negative.
Edwards said he will compete in Wisconsin no matter Tuesday's outcome and added a weekend trip there to his itinerary to pick up the endorsement of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees.
Tennessee is do-or-die country for Clark, who was born in Chicago but grew up in Arkansas.
A Virginia poll out Saturday found Kerry with the backing of 34 percent of likely voters, Edwards at 25 percent and Clark at 14 percent. The Mason-Dixon poll reported 13 percent undecided.
The poll was taken Wednesday and Thursday of 625 likely voters and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.