LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Retired Gen. Wesley Clark (search) dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination on Wednesday, saying any of the men still vying for the chance to take on George Bush would be a good choice for the party.
"I want to applaud John Kerry, John Edwards and Howard Dean for running good campaigns. They are good men, good Democrats and they are real patriots," Clark told supporters in his hometown in Little Rock.
He also gave a last piece of advice to the party's eventual nominee.
"Give 'em hell and never retreat," he said.
Though he had the financial support of many former Clinton backers, Clark was never able to command the energy needed to sustain his late entry into the race. But he said he was not giving up his campaign's goals.
"When I got out of the Army, I said the fight was just beginning. I didn't know what I meant when I said it, but I had this incredible feeling that once out of uniform, that I would get to see the country, that I would get a chance to speak out, and so five months ago, just a few miles from here, we began our journey," he said.
"We decided we're going to end this phase of the journey even more full of hope and even more committed to the betterment of America," Clark said. "This has been every bit a cause as it has been a campaign."
The novice politician, who had hoped to cash in on his Southern roots, saw a round of disappointing third-place primary returns on Tuesday in Virginia and Tennessee, despite spending more than $1 million on television commercials in the Volunteer State. Campaign aides, who had not been paid for more than a week, said after the primary results that they were packing their bags and going home.
Sources told Fox News that Clark lacked the funds to advertise aggressively in next week's Wisconsin primary (search), and aides said they would have had to camp out in Wisconsin for lack of travel money.
Clark, 59, entered the race in September, a late start for a neophyte campaigner, but he quickly rose in the polls as the alternative candidate to Dean, considered an insurgent outsider whom Clark's backers assumed lacked the national security credentials to go the distance.
In appealing to voters, Clark relied almost entirely on his 34 years in military service, which included serving as Supreme Allied Commander (search) of NATO. He promoted his wartime record, from being wounded in Vietnam in 1970 to running the bombing campaign in Kosovo (search) in 1999, as the kind of experience needed with American soldiers in Iraq and concerns about security at home.
The Clark team assumed Dean would win the Iowa caucuses so he skipped them and tried to make his stand in New Hampshire. But when Dean imploded in Iowa, Kerry emerged as the leader of the pack, and he had the national security credentials. This badly undercut the rationale for Clark, who ran a distant third in New Hampshire.
Clark said his campaign "began with what I call the four 'nos' — no money, no staff, no position papers and a candidate with no political experience." And despite his "hope, lifetime of leadership experience and vision for America," his political inexperience caused him problems.
On the first full day of his campaign, Clark said he probably would have voted for the Bush-backed Iraq resolution but then, a day later, insisted he never would have voted "for this war," calling it unnecessary, reckless and wrong.
"I would not have gone into Iraq in the first place," he said. "My position was that Iraq was not an imminent threat. I would have concentrated on Usama bin Laden (search)."
His supporters were left confused while his detractors grew elated. Questions about his stand on the war in Iraq never ceased.
"I bobbled the question," he later told The Associated Press. "Even Rhodes scholars make mistakes."
Still, Clark won Oklahoma's primary, finished second in Arizona, New Mexico and North Dakota, shining a light on what Democrats' believe is Bush's vulnerability on foreign policy.
Even in his last stand, Clark stressed his opposition to Bush.
"George W. Bush has not led America. He's misled America time and again, and we have to put a stop to it," he said.
The retired general made it clear before he entered the race that part of his lengthy deliberation about running or not was concern about his personal finances. For a latecomer, Clark had enormous fund-raising success, raising nearly $15 million in 2003 and starting January with at least $10 million left and the prospect of raising nearly $1 million per week as the first elections neared.
But even after his decent showings last week, Clark's financing could not keep up with his ambitions. Aides told Fox News that part of his decision to quit was to keep his family out of debt following a losing endeavor. Senior staff added that they cannot afford to continue to travel around the country for a man who cannot win the nomination.
John Kerry (search), who has won 12 of the 14 primaries/caucuses so far, said Clark ran a campaign that "he and his family can be proud of."
"He reminded Democrats of the importance of national security as we face a wartime president who has run a reckless foreign policy," Kerry said in a statement. "He will no doubt continue to contribute to the life of our party and our country. We look forward to working with him in the months ahead to defeat George Bush and bring change to America."
The legacy from Clark may not have been the damage to he has done to the president, but the damage one of his supporters had done. Filmmaker Michael Moore (search), who called the president a deserter during his time in the National Guard, inflamed an issue the White House thought had been settled long ago.
Fox News' Carl Cameron and The Associated Press contributed to this report.