ROCK HILL, S.C. — ROCK HILL, S.C. - Pickup trucks and cars filled the muddy parking lot outside a local union hall the other day as retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark of Arkansas brought his presidential campaign to his native South, where reverence for military service knows little bounds.
Inside, Mr. Clark served up his credentials at once - 34 years in the Army, decorated combat veteran of Vietnam, commander of NATO. What he offers, he said, is "a high standard of leadership, leadership that does not polarize."
Separating himself from the rest of the Democratic field, he assured the crowd: "I'm not a professional politician. I'm just a leader." As for those who say, "You're just a soldier from the South," he went on, "What's going on in Washington is too important to be left to a lot of Washington politicians."
Men and women, black and white, wearing a variety of colorful union jackets, greeted his earnest message of leadership with an interesting mixture of patriotism and religious fervor. As if it were an old-time church revival, listeners punctuated Mr. Clark's points with responses of "Yeah, that's right" as he attacked President Bush on a range of issues, foreign and domestic.
But it was his criticism of the president in the military realm that drew the strongest response. When the general ticked off Mr. Bush's unproven claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam Hussein had links to al-Qaida, a union man called out: "Bush is a liar!" and others cheered and applauded.
Although Mr. Clark duly recited his domestic proposals for health care, education and environmental protection, it was the ramrod-straight military side of the man that seemed most to stir the crowd. In a debate in Greenville that night, Mr. Clark reminded the audience of his background so often that The State newspaper facetiously commented afterward: "In South Carolina, when you're a general, you might want to mention it once or twice."
While Mr. Clark on paper has the right credentials for political success here as a military hero with Dixie roots, a problem is that he is sharing them with other candidates. The front-runner, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, is also a decorated Vietnam veteran, and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina was born in South Carolina.
In a quest for the large veterans' vote in the state, Mr. Kerry has repeated a pitch that worked effectively in the Iowa caucuses and even more so in the New Hampshire primary, both of which he won. Once again he brought two prominent veterans and others of what he calls his Vietnam "band of brothers" to campaign for him.
Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, finishing his seventh term in the Senate after serving as governor of the state, and former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, a triple amputee, led a platoon of Kerry cheerleaders at a rally at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Mr. Clark has not assembled or lured any such army of Vietnam vets to his side on the campaign trail.
Meanwhile, Mr. Edwards, who trailed Mr. Clark by only a few hundred votes for third place in New Hampshire, has been barnstorming South Carolina, which he has said he must win to remain a viable candidate. Mr. Clark's Southern roots are not nearly as revealed by his speech as are those of Mr. Edwards, whose heavy drawl is obvious and appealing to Dixie ears.
So far, at least, Mr. Clark has been a candidate running largely on his resume;. His most conspicuous difference from the other six Democrats, except for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, has been his flat rejection of the Iraq invasion.
In a sense whipsawed between fellow war hero Kerry and the youthful and charismatic fellow Southerner Edwards, Mr. Clark has his work cut out for him to survive here.
Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.