CONCORD, N.H. – Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark (search) accused rival Howard Dean (search) of "old time politics" on Wednesday for labeling him a Republican. Closing the gap with Dean in New Hampshire, Clark also proposed a new role for NATO (search) in tracking down international terrorists such as Usama bin Laden.
"George Bush still hasn't finished the job he started," said the retired Army general.
Clark sought to make the most of recent gains in polls showing him moving within striking distance of front-runner Dean.
Reflecting the tightening race, Dean accused Clark of being a Republican at heart who once raised money for the Republican Party.
Clark said he was flattered by the new attention.
But he told reporters after a national security speech, "I'm a Democrat." He added that, if he won the nomination, he would bring "a lot of others" into the party's fold.
Clark, who has been drawing larger crowds at campaign stops across the state in recent days, outlined a plan he said would improve homeland security and the war on terror.
"Like many Americans, I've lost faith in our commander in chief," Clark said in prepared remarks. "He has failed to lead effectively and honestly. And, every day, Americans live at risk because of his failures."
Clark vowed to "take on terrorism, to stomp out the Al Qaeda network, and protect America at home and abroad."
His plan would broaden the scope of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to "help focus worldwide anti-proliferation efforts," said Clark, a former NATO supreme commander who ran the war in Kosovo.
He proposed a NATO "counterterrorism strike force" that would also include Arab, African and Asian troops. "The strike force's No. 1 mission will be to seek out, capture and destroy Al Qaeda operatives and their associates," he said.
Clark also proposed a $40 billion Homeland Economic Security Fund to create new jobs "that will immediately improve our security."
Clark has suggested that the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks could have been prevented, and has accused Bush of being too preoccupied with getting Iraq's Saddam Hussein to do enough to hunt down bin Laden.
Spending most of the week in New Hampshire while most of his rivals toiled in Iowa, Clark was gaining on Dean, according to several private and independent polls. Some showed the former Vermont governor's once formidable lead of around 25 percent at the start of the year down to high single digits.
David Corbin, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said Clark could even overtake Dean.
"You see an amazing number of Clark signs going up. His crowds are doubling and tripling. Many people in the Dean camp are now wavering," Corbin said.
He compared Clark's surge to that enjoyed in the final days of the 2000 GOP primary by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who went on to win the primary, although he later lost the nomination to George W. Bush.
A poll by the Boston Herald published on Wednesday showed Dean's lead shrinking to 9 percentage points. Another poll, by the American Research Group, Inc., showed Dean with 32 percent support and Clark with 22 percent in the three-day period that ended Tuesday. Clark, already strong among men, has been gaining support among older women.
Mo Elleithee, a Clark spokesman, said the polls reflected "forward movement" that was welcome. Still, he cautioned, "polls are volatile," especially in New Hampshire, in the final days before a primary election. "It's not going to change the way we do business," he said.
The tightening of the New Hampshire race has injected new energy into Clark's campaign and prompted Dean, the former governor of Vermont, to revise his strategy.
Dean, locked in a close four-way fight in Iowa, attacked Clark directly during a campaign stop in New Hampshire, before heading back to Iowa.
"I think General Clark is a good guy, but I truly believe he's a Republican. I do. Harry Truman once said if you run a Republican against a Republican, the Republican's going to win every time," Dean said.
"Look, I don't mean offense to General Clark. He is a good guy. And I don't mind that he voted for Nixon and Reagan. That was a long time ago," Dean said. "What bothers me is he went out and raised money for the Republican Party and said great things about Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush."
Asked about Dean's comments, Clark said, "It's old time politics. That's all it is."
Clark is not competing in the kickoff Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19, instead focusing much of his energy and attention on New Hampshire's Jan. 27 primary.
Clark himself has been drawing the kind of fire from rivals that in the past had been aimed mainly at Dean. At issue are his position on Iraq, his past votes for Republican President Reagan, and for recent comments on abortion and the 2001 terror attacks.
In an interview last week with the Manchester Union Leader, Clark said he opposed any restriction on abortion, even right up until the last day of a pregnancy. He also said he would not appoint judges who oppose the right to abortion.
"Life begins with the mother's decision," Clark said.
His statement drew condemnations from anti-abortion groups. His campaign later suggested Clark had not intended to get into a debate over timing.