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Clark still mulling White House bid

Kerry 'retools' with formal announcement tour

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark says he's a Democrat.
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark says he's a Democrat.

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Manchester, New Hampshire (CNN) -- Retired Gen. Wesley Clark on Wednesday ended the suspense about one aspect of his political future, but he left in place the big question he himself has raised about a run for the White House.

In an exclusive interview with me on CNN's "Inside Politics," Clark said he's concluded he's a Democrat.

"I like the message the party has, I like what it stands for. To start, it's a party that stands for internationalism, it's a party that stands for ordinary men and women, it's a party that stands for fair play and equity and justice and common sense and reasonable dialogue," Clark said. "It's a party that has had a great tradition in our country, and I'm very attracted to it and that's the party I belong to."

Clark added that GOP positions on the Iraq war and on tax cuts have caused him to lean left. He acknowledged this decision puts him one step closer to what he called "closure" in the matter of whether he'll run for the Democratic nomination for president. But Clark insisted he's still thinking it through.

" I like the other people in the race, they're great people," he said. "By the way, there's a lot of great people in the Republican Party, too, that I feel very close to and whom I admire tremendously. So this is a very tough decision."

Political analysts say Clark has little time to make up his mind if he's going to run. The first Democratic primary contests -- in Iowa and New Hampshire -- are just four and a half months away. Many of the nine current '04 Democratic candidates have already established campaign organizations in these states and others and raised tens of millions of dollars.

And former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has come on so strong and so fast that he's caused the other Democratic candidates to rethink their strategies for capturing the nomination.

Sen.John Kerry is undertaking the most visible "retooling" by conducting a formal announcement tour this week -- which started in South Carolina, with several stops including New Hampshire, where I caught up with him on Wednesday, and asked how much of a setback Gov. Dean has dealt his campaign:

"We're not in trouble," Kerry retorted, "and I ...object to the sense of that question." The junior senator from Massachusetts insisted it's still early in the campaign, and said he has plenty of time to introduce himself to the voters who'll turn out in the Democratic primaries in early 2004.

'We're just getting going'

"I've not advertised. We've done no television. Howard Dean and others have. We're just getting going. And you wait and see. I think we're going do exactly what we need to do," Kerry said.

Kerry strongly dismissed media criticism that he has recently softened his earlier support of the war in Iraq, and he issued a vocal denunciation of the Bush administration's conduct of the war and its aftermath.

"It is not the time for on-the-job training in foreign policy and national security issues. It's the time for real leadership," Kerry said. "I voted correctly on the issue of going to the United Nations and threatening force -- legitimate, real, credible threat of force -- in order to hold Saddam Hussein accountable and make our country safer.

"Regrettably, this president did not use that properly. And that's the difference in a president," Kerry stated.

Kerry argued that many in the press are mischaracterizing his position, and he insisted in so many words that the president and Secretary of State Colin Powell had misled Congress when they gave a rationale for war that has turned out so far, to be non-existent -- namely, the need to eliminate weapons of mass destruction.

Many Democrats say what Kerry needs to do is generate some excitement around his campaign.

In a bit of irony, one Kerry supporter pointed to Clark as possibly providing some help: "If Clark gets in as a strong opponent of the Bush war in Iraq, he hurts Dean, who's made criticism of the war the centerpiece of his campaign."

Judy Woodruff is CNN's prime anchor and senior correspondent. She also anchors "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics," weekdays at 3:30 pm ET.

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