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With salty remark, Clark defends record

DERRY, N.H. -- Moments after praising his opponents in the Democratic presidential race as worthy running mates, Wesley Clark said, in no uncertain terms, how he would respond if they or anyone else criticized his patriotism or military record.

"I'll beat the . . . out of them," Clark told a questioner as he walked through the crowd after a town hall meeting yesterday. "I hope that's not on television," he added.

It was, live, on C-Span.

Clark was responding to a rambling question by a man who referred to then-candidate George W. Bush attacking Senator John McCain's commitment to veterans in the 2000 primaries. The man asked Clark if he would take the offensive if Bush or any of the other Democrats questioned his trading military caps with a Bosnian general who now is a war crimes suspect, or cited critical comments about Clark by former Army brass.

His campaign was quick to say Clark was speaking rhetorically, and would come out strongly against anyone who challenges his patriotism or military service.

"General Clark is a military man and a fighter," said the campaign's national spokesman, Bill Buck. "He'll stand up to President Bush or any of the administration's chicken hawks that attack his patriotism, military record, or his commitment to veterans, which is one of the reasons why he will beat George Bush."

Buck balked at commenting on whether Clark was including "the other Democrats" in his response, and refused to comment when asked if Clark regretted making the remark.

The campaign's traveling press secretary, Jamal Simmons, was with Clark at the time, and said he heard Clark's answer but not the question. He called it "an unscripted comment from a blunt-spoken leader."

"If anyone tries to question Wes Clark's character, integrity, or his commitment to this country or its security, they're going to be in the biggest fight they've ever had," he said.

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