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Inside Politics

Why didn't Clark click?

Politics may still be in general's future

By Thom Patterson

Wesley Clark claimed victory in only one contest: Oklahoma.
Wesley Clark claimed victory in only one contest: Oklahoma.

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CNN's Dan Lothian reports on retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark's decision to end his bid.
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America Votes 2004\s Presidential Race
Democratic candidates
Wesley Clark

(CNN) -- Former presidential candidate Wesley Clark: a victorious NATO supreme commander, a self-described Washington outsider, West Point graduate, Rhodes scholar, soldier from Arkansas. So why didn't he catch on with voters in Democratic caucuses and primaries?

"Voters were not looking for an outsider this year," said CNN political analyst Bill Schneider. "It wasn't the message they wanted. They want someone with political experience, a sure hand, knowledgeability, someone who's been around Washington at a time of peril to the country."

Clark, 59, apparently decided to end his presidential campaign Tuesday night, after placing third in Virginia and Tennessee's primaries. (Full story)

In both primaries, Clark ranked behind 61-year-old Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts -- who now has won 12 Democratic contests -- and fellow Southerner Sen. John Edwards, who won the primary in South Carolina.

"We have decided we are going to end this phase of the journey even more full of hope and even more committed to building a better America," Clark told supporters Wednesday in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Clark spokesman Matt Bennett told reporters the night before, in Memphis, Tennessee, that Clark would leave the race.

"I think probably the biggest reason is the tremendous momentum that Senator Kerry built coming out of the Iowa and New Hampshire races," Bennett said. "The mountain got too steep to climb."

Clark dropped out of the race after claiming victory in just one contest -- the Oklahoma primary on February 3 -- prompting Clark to exclaim: "From the bottom of my heart: I love Oklahoma."

Clark held a 1 percentage point lead over Edwards in the Oklahoma race. An official final count was due sometime this week at the earliest.

Although still in the race, Democrats Al Sharpton of New York and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio have very few delegates so far, 12 and 2 respectively. (Delegate scorecard)

Another major reason Clark didn't click with voters, Schneider said, was the late start to his campaign, prompting him to skip the January 19 Iowa caucuses.

By ignoring Iowa, Clark allowed Kerry to run alone with a message and a target constituency that was virtually identical to Clark's -- including "veterans, seniors, the standing to engage President Bush in a debate on national security, the promise to keep Americans safe."

But, Schneider said, "Kerry got there first because he ran in Iowa and Clark didn't."

Edwards, 50, had said he was hoping to finish Tuesday's Virginia and Tennessee primaries in the "top two" spots, and he got his wish.

Now, with upcoming Democratic primaries in Georgia on Super Tuesday March 2 and Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas on March 9, the Southern Democratic vote won't be split between two Southerners.

"It leaves a clearer field for Edwards, if Edwards can take Kerry in the South, he won't have Clark splitting that vote," Schneider said. "But it remains to be seen whether Edwards can take Kerry."

For Edwards, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean looms large. Dean skipped the Southern primaries and has made Wisconsin's primary on February 17 his focus. (Contest calendar)

"Presumably now Edwards, if he gets rid of Dean, and he's one-on-one with Kerry, then Edwards has the chance that's he's looking for: one-on-one with Kerry," Schneider said.

A recent American Research Poll in Wisconsin showed Kerry with 41 percent of respondents' support, Clark with 15 percent, Edwards with 10 percent and Dean with 9 percent.

Kerry's victories in Virginia, with 52 percent of the vote, and Tennessee, with 41 percent, suggest the South might support a presidential candidate from the Northeastern Democratic establishment.

Edwards has acknowledged he is aware of the importance of the South. "We've never elected a Democrat president of the United States without winning at least five Southern states," Edwards said last month.

As for the future, Clark doesn't have to follow in the footsteps of another famous general -- World War II's Gen. Douglas MacArthur -- and "just fade away."

Clark, who has experience as a CNN military consultant and investment banker, appears to have many post-campaign options.

"He may choose to run for office in Arkansas -- senator or something," Schneider said. "And I think if Kerry is elected, he would probably give Clark a lot of consideration for a high-level position."

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