MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Retired Gen. Wesley Clark (search) drew distinctions with his Democratic rivals on taxes Sunday and warned he's the only presidential candidate tough enough to challenge the Republican "mean machine."
Clark said his tax plan, which includes eliminating income taxes for families of four earning less than $50,000, would offer more than the average $100 a year benefit promised by rivals John Kerry (search) and John Edwards (search).
"Mine will be $1,500 a year," Clark told reporters after appearing at a predominantly black church.
Clark was spending most of the day in Tennessee, site of an important primary Tuesday, but was traveling to Wisconsin for a jobs forum, stressing his view that the country needs a fairer tax system and touting his Army record and what he says is his toughness.
"I think when you're looking for somebody to go up against the Republican Party's mean machine, you need someone who knows who he is and knows what he stands for and is tough enough to take it," said Clark.
Kerry, a Massachusetts senator and front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, highlights his background as a decorated Vietnam veteran. Clark reminded churchgoers that he served in Vietnam, too.
"I did come home in a stretcher," Clark said. "I'm on a different mission today."
Clark is behind in the polls heading into the important Tennessee and Virginia primaries Tuesday. He grew up in Arkansas and argues that he's the candidate who can win the South, but faces stiff competition on that score from Edwards, a North Carolina senator and South Carolina native.
Both he and Edwards hope to emerge as the alternative to Kerry.
Clark refused to entertain questions about whether he'd leave the race if he loses anywhere on Tuesday.
"We expect to win Tennessee and go right on," he told reporters.
Clark's tax plan calls for deep tax cuts for middle-class families, financed by higher income taxes on those making more than $1 million a year.
He ridiculed his rivals' plans. Clark said Kerry's proposal would help only middle-class families with kids in college. "Most middle-class families don't have kids in college," Clark said. Edwards' plan, he said, would offer help to those with dividend income and "most middle-class families don't have stock that has dividends."
"Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards are good men, but they don't have the leadership to stand up to millionaires," said Clark. "They talk about middle-class tax cuts, but it's just rhetoric. The majority of families would not get any tax cut from either of them and the average tax cut would be less than $100."
Edwards told The Associated Press in an interview: "He's wrong."
He said Clark is looking at only one part of his tax plan, the section on dividends.
"My middle-class tax cut plan will give thousand of dollars to tens of millions of families," Edwards said in the interview. "He's only looking at the deductions. You have to look at all the other parts together."
His plan calls for cuts for Americans earning at least $240,000, and a 10 percent tax cut to companies that make products in the United States. It also calls for a credit of up to $5,000 for first-time home buyers.
Heading to Wisconsin, Clark vowed to wage a strong campaign in that state for next week's primary.
"I've got great people there," he said. "I feel very good about it."
At a jobs-and-economy rally in Racine, Wis., before several hundred backers, Clark touted his business background after leaving the military. He said creating jobs is the strongest "family value."
"I think I'm the best-equipped person in this race to bring jobs to America," Clark said. "We're going to put $100 billion back into jobs."