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THAT OLD-TIME RELIGION

Playing preacher, Clark hits stump

TULSA, Okla. -- The microphone was making a strange buzzing noise, interrupting retired Army General Wesley K. Clark's speech every time he started to get going. Clark didn't miss a beat.

"It must be thunder from the good Lord!" he shouted, lifting his hands up, preacher-style, and drawing the laughter of the crowd in the Baptist church yesterday.

It was a fitting exclamation point on another stump speech that leaned heavily on religion. As Clark pounds the Bible Belt for votes in the days before Tuesday's primaries and caucuses, he is talking about religion in deeply personal terms, using it to explain the rationale for everything from his tax-cut plan to his belief that the environment should be better protected.

On the stump, Clark mentions his Jewish father and Methodist mother, recalls going to a Baptist church three times on Sundays as a child, and reminisces about Wednesday nights spent at church-run spaghetti dinners. He's saying he'll allow Republicans to join his campaign without having to repent, and is occasionally telling crowds that he "accepted the Lord as my savior" at age 9.

And at just about all his campaign stops, he puts President Bush and the Republican Party in his religious crosshairs.

"Lots of people can quote Scriptures, and lots of people can preach," Clark told a crowd of about 300 supporters in Sierra Vista, Ariz., yesterday. "But not everybody practices what they preach in life."

It is a focused message for a candidate who has been in dire need of one, after the Democratic field took a new shape after Iowa and New Hampshire. His bid to be the antiwar alternative to former Vermont governor Howard Dean has lost steam even as Dean's campaign has stumbled.

Clark, of Arkansas, has been trying to emerge as a possible favorite son in the South. The effort is in danger of being eclipsed by Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, who ran a strong second in Iowa and is polling well in the crucial state of South Carolina, where the vote takes place on Tuesday. Even Clark's appeal among veterans is being undercut by Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, a Vietnam veteran.

Clark has whittled down the list of states he is visiting in the run-up to Tuesday to three: Oklahoma, Arizona, and New Mexico. He's also hoping for a strong showing in South Carolina. The religious message appears to be working for him among some who are coming out to hear him speak.

"It was so marvelous to hear," said Dorothy Whenry, who lives in the Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond and heard Clark on Thursday at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post. "I like the fact that he knows and uses his religious background. He doesn't just spout it off."

Clark peppered his speeches with religious references on the campaign trail in New Hampshire as well. But his attention to religion has intensified as he campaigns in the South and the Southwest. Faith has become a central element of his stump speech, and he talks about religious beliefs as the guidepost for his domestic policy goals in particular.

"If you're more fortunate and more favored in life, then you should help those that are less fortunate . . . and that's what this Democratic Party does," he said Thursday in Oklahoma City.

Clark's best shot may be by leaning on religion in states where Democrats take their faith seriously. As he moved quickly through the South and the Southwest last week, the crowds seemed drawn to the message of the importance of religion as a baseline for values.

"I have faith, too," Polly Martino, 78, said at a Clark event Wednesday in Phoenix. "I'm a Christian and I go to church, and I live by that. I pray for our president, and I pray for our country."

Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.

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