Retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark parried sharp questions Sunday about his shifting statements and actions on Iraq, the Balkans, the Bush administration and his party allegiance as he competed in what some political professionals call "the Russert primary" in the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.
Clark, the latest entrant in the nine-way race, appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" as a declared candidate for the first time, just days before the scheduled launch of his first television advertisements in New Hampshire in a bid for support in that state's Jan. 27 primary. An appearance before interviewer Tim Russert has become almost a rite of passage for the Democratic candidates.
On the show, Clark acknowledged his inexperience in politics but depicted himself as a seasoned hand in international and military affairs who is eager to take on his Democratic rivals for the right to face President Bush in next year's election.
Pressed to explain statements that seemed to advocate support for a resolution authorizing Bush to use force against Iraq, Clark, who later opposed the war, said: "What I would have supported was taking the problem to the United Nations.... Yes, I believe Saddam Hussein was a challenge and a threat, but I did not see an imminent threat."
Clark added that Bush should not have launched the war. "Those weren't the right orders," he said. "Diplomacy hadn't been exhausted, we hadn't brought our allies on board, and we didn't have an adequate plan for what would happen next."
Clark, who commanded NATO forces during the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, also defended his handling of negotiations in 1994 with a Bosnian Serb military leader suspected of war crimes. Shown a picture of himself posing with Gen. Ratko Mladic, taken after the two had exchanged hats, Clark acknowledged that he should not have accepted from Mladic a bottle of brandy and an inscribed pistol. "It was a mistake to accept those gifts," Clark said.
But stressing his role as a diplomatic broker, Clark said: "We were trying to persuade the Serbs at the time to sign a peace agreement, so it seemed to me that, importantly, for the United States to get the policy right, we needed to talk to leaders of both sides" -- including Mladic.
Clark also sought to lay to rest questions about speeches he gave in 2001 and 2002 that appeared to indicate support for Bush and his administration at a time when many Democrats were fiercely criticizing the president. Russert said he could imagine Bush quoting one of the speeches in a campaign commercial if Clark were to win the Democratic nomination.
Clark replied: "That's politics, Tim. But, you know, I'm not a politician, but I am a fair person. I supported the president in Afghanistan.... And I give the men and women of the armed forces, including our commander in chief, who is at the top of the chain of command, the credit for waging a very effective campaign, as far as it went, in Afghanistan."
But Clark, who only declared himself a Democrat this year, emphasized that he did not vote for Bush in 2000.
At another point, Clark shrugged off criticism from one of his military peers, retired Army Gen. Hugh Shelton. The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has questioned Clark's "integrity and character," but the candidate described the dispute as merely "a policy disagreement" that Shelton "let become personal."
The appearance on the program came as Clark was seeking to recapture lost momentum.
After shooting to the top of the polls immediately after entering the race Sept. 17, Clark stumbled. But several staffers from Sen. Bob Graham's defunct presidential campaign recently signed on -- and as the retired general refines his message and improves his stump speech, his campaign appears steadier. It seems especially strong when it comes to raising money.
"Our fund-raising is going far, far better than we had projected even in our fondest dreams," Clark communications director Matt Bennett said Sunday.
Bennett said the campaign now expected to take in $12 million in the fourth quarter, which ends Dec. 31, behind only former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
As much as 40% of Clark's contributions are relatively small sums accumulated through the Internet, Bennett said, suggesting that the online "Draft Wesley Clark" effort that helped lure the former North Atlantic Treaty Organization supreme commander into the race continues to be an effective grass-roots tool.
The money has allowed Clark to produce a 60-second television commercial highlighting his war record, with dramatic narrative on the bullet wounds he took when he earned a Silver Star in Vietnam. He is buying about $220,000 worth of airtime over the next two weeks in the Manchester, N.H., market as well as in some Vermont media markets that broadcast into New Hampshire.
Clark expects to miss at least three days of campaigning in mid-December to testify at the war crimes trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague. But he may reap a publicity benefit.
As NATO supreme commander, Clark directed the 78-day bombing campaign in 1999 that helped bring an end to Serb killings of Kosovo Albanians and that led, later, to the downfall of Milosevic.
Clark battled with some in the Clinton administration over his leadership in the war, but he has said he considered helping end the ethnic slaughter in Kosovo among his greatest achievements.
"We won't be using his testimony in any political way," Bennett said. "We're not going to do anything that is inappropriate, but the fact is there will be lots of press interest in his testimony."
Anderson reported from Washington and Slater from Manchester.