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Oklahoma win keeps general's fight alive

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Retired general Wesley K. Clark kept his presidential aspirations alive last night with a hair's-breadth victory in the Oklahoma primary and second-place finishes in Arizona and North Dakota, as well as a respectable outing in New Mexico.


Clark had targeted the three states as his best chances for a victory in the race for the Democratic nomination. The win propelled him into next week's primaries in Tennessee and Virginia.

But his narrow victory in Oklahoma was only confirmed late in the evening after a surprisingly effective showing from Senator John Edwards.

Edwards's strong finish in Oklahoma was a blow to Clark, who had been marginally favored to win in a two-person contest over John F. Kerry. While Clark is skipping the Michigan and Washington primaries this weekend, he and Edwards will square off directly on Tuesday in Tennessee and Virginia.

"Oklahoma is OK by me," an ebullient Clark told his cheering supporters last night. "As an old soldier from Arkansas, I just couldn't be prouder of your support in this first election I've ever won."

Clark aides had privately predicted second-place finishes in Arizona and New Mexico. Arizona allows for balloting by mail, and Clark's campaign had hoped that a strong showing in votes mailed before the New Hampshire primary might carry him to a strong finish. But Kerry won Arizona by a wide margin.

While Clark finished second in the North Dakota caucuses, Kerry more than doubled his vote total, 50 percent to 24 percent.

Kerry also easily won the New Mexico caucuses. With 66 percent of precincts reporting, Clark was ahead of former Vermont governor Howard Dean for second place by slightly more than 2,000 votes.

Clark aides had also hoped for an advantage in absentee balloting in the New Mexico contest, but he finished only third among absentee voters in that state, with his 25.4 percent landing marginally behind Kerry's 27.1 and former Dean's 26.5 percent. Nevertheless, his aides were ecstatic. "We got an Oklahoma victory and we're marching on to Tennessee," said Chris Lehane, a campaign adviser.

Before the results were known, an apparently serene Clark dined with his family and top campaign aides, and said that he did not plan on watching the returns. Instead, he said he had some books he planned on reading. Of the overall race, he said: "This could be over . . . [or] it could be a long way from over."

He said the Democrats had made the right decision in front-loading the primary schedule because it allowed a wider field of candidates to compete.

"I hope the people in these states will make the right decision and not have allowed the so-called `big mo' to overly influence the outcome," Clark said.

Meanwhile, for the couple of hundred supporters who gathered to watch the returns in a ballroom at the Cox Convention Center here, it was an evening of whipsaw emotions.

The crowd knew the importance of the contest: It erupted into cheers every time a favorable vote count -- at times a lead of 100 votes or fewer -- flashed on the projection television screen and were more subdued when returns favored Edwards.

Of course, a picture of President Bush on the screen brought loud and hearty boos. Occasionally, the audience broke into chants of "U-Wes-A! U-Wes-A!" and "Go Wes go! Go Wes go!"

Clark, who spent yesterday campaigning around Oklahoma City, had acknowledged the day's importance. "We have to win today, we know that," Clark told reporters crammed into his headquarters early in the afternoon.

At the same time, his son, Wesley K. Clark Jr., said that if his father failed to take any races yesterday, he should withdraw. Standing outside his father's headquarters in jeans and scuffed loafers, Clark Jr., a 34-year-old Hollywood screenwriter and military veteran, called the electoral process "disillusioning."

Subdued and bitter about how the campaign has unfolded, the younger Clark lambasted the media for focusing its coverage on campaign staff, polling numbers, and nonissues like the fact that the candidate wore a sweater in New Hampshire.

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