Clark Retools Message Before Feb. 3

Democrat Wesley Clark (search) is redoubling his efforts in the seven states that vote next week, paying special attention to Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma in his pursuit of the elusive win necessary to stay in the presidential race.

As rival John Kerry (search) improved his standing and Howard Dean (search) shifted his focus from Tuesday's primaries and caucuses, Clark expressed confidence that he would do well in at least some of the states, but declined to specify which ones.

"We're very strong in a number of states — in finance and organization well past Feb. 3. I intend to win on Feb. 3," said the retired Army general.

By skipping Iowa and finishing a distant third in New Hampshire, campaign strategists conceded that Clark needs to score wins in at least some of Tuesday's states to make a plausible case for staying in the race. One official said the campaign had enough money to keep going through the Wisconsin primary Feb. 17 if Clark posts even a respectable showing next week.

The campaign is running television ads in five of the seven states — Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, North Dakota and South Carolina. Officials are still trying to decide whether to target Missouri, which offers the day's biggest delegate prize with 74.

Clark aides insisted the lack of an active campaign in Missouri should not be construed as a decision to forfeit the state to Kerry, who has staked a claim there since Rep. Dick Gephardt quit the race. A senior Clark strategist said it made more sense to build a base of support in other states where the campaign has had active organizations for months.

Clark entered the race last fall during Dean's rapid rise and sought to position himself as the "anti-Dean" — stressing his military credentials and Southern roots. Now that Kerry — himself a decorated military veteran — has emerged as the undisputed front-runner, Clark has been forced to retool his message.

Campaigning across the South and West this week, Clark has tried to distinguish himself from Kerry, a wealthy New Englander and Senate veteran. Without mentioning Kerry by name, Clark tells supporters about his own modest Arkansas roots and financial struggles as a young Army officer, repeatedly telling the story of how, at age 41, he repaired his car muffler with tape because he couldn't afford to purchase a new one.

Clark also has tried to claim the Washington outsider mantle — touting himself as "a leader, not a legislator." It's a message echoed in new television ads that debuted across five of the seven Feb. 3 states this week. Clark is spending about $1.2 million, more than his rivals so far, this week to run ads there and in Virginia, Tennessee and Wisconsin, which hold primaries later in February.

Flipping pancakes at a VFW hall in Oklahoma City Thursday morning, Clark told supporters he would bring the values of "people like us, in this room" to the White House.

"I know that what's going on in America is too important to be left with politicians from Washington," Clark said.

Seeking to shore up his appeal in the West, where none of the candidates has a natural home-state advantage, Clark tried to claim some of those states as adopted territory.

"I'm a Southerner, but I'm also a next-door neighbor to Oklahoma," Clark told reporters. "And I got relatives out in Arizona. And we vacation a lot in Santa Fe, and other places in New Mexico."