LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Senator John F. Kerry joined yesterday with doctors and veterans in accusing President Bush of shortchanging the nation's medical care system, as the presumptive Democratic nominee campaigned in Arkansas, a Southern state that Bush won four years ago.
Kerry also set off a burst of chatter in the state's capital that he may look to the South for a running mate by campaigning yesterday and Wednesday evening alongside native son Wesley K. Clark, who is now being considered by the Kerry camp for a possible spot on the ticket. The retired four-star general huddled with Kerry and campaign chairwoman Jeanne Shaheen for an hour yesterday.
In remarks at the Donald W. Reynolds Center on Aging, part of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the presumptive Democratic nominee made an appeal to Southerners that Republican priorities in Washington were not improving medical care or the economic lot of average Americans and military families.
''We have the greatest health care in the world, the best, but we also have a system in crisis," Kerry told 150 medical professionals and veterans. ''It's an incredible contradiction. We deserve leadership that doesn't just kind of stiff-arm it, pretend it's not there, and shove it off to the side. We deserve leadership that wants to sit with doctors, to sit with healthcare delivery businesses, and bring people to the table and say, ''How do we do this smart?"'
Hershel Gober, a former secretary for veterans' affairs in the Clinton administration, expressed bitterness about the Bush presidency and also the plight of those elderly and veterans who have had trouble getting medical care.
''I can't even walk by the White House now -- I turn my head the other way -- because Al Gore should be there. We're not going to let them steal this one, John," Gober said, a reference to the bitterly contested 2000 election.
Steve Schmidt, a Bush campaign spokesman, charged in response that Kerry and his allies were playing politics with veterans' benefits. He asserted that federal funding for veterans programs had increased by 40 percent under Bush.
Clark served as the warm-up act for Kerry at a rally, a town hall forum, and a $500,000 fund-raiser, ridiculing President Bush as a laconic good-old-boy, while praising Kerry's two tours of duty in Vietnam and 25 years of public service. It was the first extended, up-close look Kerry has had of the way Clark carries himself on the stump, and Kerry laughed and clapped during Clark's introductory remarks.
''He could have chosen an easy life -- some people who went to Yale did," Clark said of Kerry and of Yale graduate Bush at the fund-raiser in Little Rock Wednesday night, a jab he repeated at the two other events. ''He could have pulled on those cowboy boots and put his feet up on the desk. But John Kerry didn't do that. John Kerry made decisions in his life that reflect who he is, and that shaped him and his values."
Campaign aides would not describe the two men's private conversations, yet some signs of a Kerry-Clark fit were clearly evident. Both men are combat veterans, modest about their own heroism in public speeches, and they enjoy assailing Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for ''wrapping themselves in the flag," in Kerry's words, when neither Republican served in Vietnam. Clark, who is a head shorter than Kerry, does not emit the kind of magnetism that might upstage him, and Clark's unadorned speaking style does not invite unfavorable comparisons with Kerry.
''It's hard not to see this as an audition for Wes Clark," said Ann Burton Portis, an Arkansas cotton farmer and former Clark for President supporter who attended the fund-raiser. ''But I think Clark would prefer to be in charge of something in his specialty, like defense or homeland security."
Clark, speaking to reporters on Kerry's campaign plane yesterday, did not respond directly to most questions about his relationship with Kerry. Asked how many times they spoke, Clark repeated his strong support for the presumptive nominee. Of their campaigning in Arkansas, Clark said: ''I think when people in the South meet him, they like him."
The candidate briefly mingled with reporters on board and took a glancing shot at the Bush campaign. ''I would rather be where we are, growing, rather than where they are," Kerry said, making a shrinking motion with his hands in an apparent reference to public opinion polls.
Kerry, who usually says ''no comment" when asked about a running mate, was a mite more open when an audience member asked if he would consider putting Clark on the ticket.
''Do you know this guy?" Kerry said to Clark, sitting on a stool a few feet away.
''No, but that's my cousin up there," Clark replied.
''Folks, I have huge respect for General Clark, I think all of you know that. We're becoming great friends in this process," Kerry said, before declining to answer the man's question.
After campaigning in Arkansas, Kerry returned to Washington, D.C., last night and spent 50 minutes in a secure room in the US Capitol looking at images of abuse of Iraqi prisoners that have been made public. Kerry did not comment, as he left the building, but nodded when asked by reporters if he was outraged.
Patrick Healy can be reached at email@example.com.