FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Former Gen. Wesley Clark, in his first full day as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, blasted President Bush for a "dogmatic" foreign policy and for putting "strong-arm tactics" on Congress to rush approval for the war in Iraq.
Saying the Bush White House used its executive authority "in ways that cut off debate," Clark said he would likely have voted to authorize the war because "the simple truth is that when the president of the United States lays the power of office" on the line, "the balance of judgment probably goes to the president."
"I was against the war," Clark said. "In retrospect, we should never have gone in there. We could have waited. We could have brought the allies in."
Asked whether he would support the president's $87-billion request for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, Clark said he would first want to see an accounting of the administration's projected costs and its exit strategy.
He faulted the administration for "arrogance" in slighting Congress and many of the nation's traditional allies. But he added, "Now that we're there, I want the mission to succeed."
In a 75-minute interview en route from his home in Little Rock, Ark., to his first campaign stop in Florida, Clark told reporters he made the decision to run Monday after conferring with his wife, Gertrude. He said a respected friend from the West Coast helped seal the decision, calling to tell him, "You must run."
Clark said he had a few conversations with former President Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), saying they were "encouraging." While some political activists have been promoting a Hillary Clinton and Clark ticket, the retired general said, "The right person to be the commander in chief is the right person to be commander in chief." Asked if he thought the Clintons would endorse him, Clark said he had not thought about it.
Clark, whose first stop was a kosher-style delicatessen in Hollywood, Fla., said he hopes to attend next week's Democratic debate in New York. He confessed that he has watched none of the Democratic debates nor read a newspaper this week.
At the Deli-Den Restaurant, Clark navigated through a crowd of well-wishers and tables topped with sauerkraut and pickles. Some people bounded through the aisles to shake his hand, pledge their volunteer help and urge him to oust Bush. Several in the audience handed checks to campaign staffers.
Standing on a chair and using a microphone, Clark assailed Bush's economic record, asking why the country has lost 2.7 million jobs, to which the crowd responded, "Bush!"
Clark said he had some other tough questions for Bush:
"Why are we engaged in Iraq?" Clark asked. "Mr. President, tell us the truth. Was it because Saddam Hussein was assisting the hijackers? Was it because Saddam Hussein had a nuclear weapon?"
Someone in the audience yelled, "Oil!"
Clark said: "We don't know. And that's the truth. We have to ask that question."
To which another person in the crowd shouted, "Halliburton is why!"
Mark Fabiani, a former aide to Al Gore's 2000 campaign and Clark's communications advisor, said the Clark team selected Florida for the candidate's first appearance for several reasons. "We wanted to firmly plant the flag in the South," said Fabiani, and "in light of what happened in 2000 in Florida, the general wanted to send a message that he will fight for every vote and the right of every person to have their vote counted."
The day also brought a few campaign lessons.
The first was that Mother Nature is often more powerful than even Democratic voting blocs. Plans to make a speech at the Citadel in South Carolina, established as a military college in 1842, were scotched when campaign staffers hesitated to fly Clark so close to the eye of Hurricane Isabel.
Another lesson was that campaigns launched on the backs of draft movements can have a rough transition. With two teams of volunteers vying for power -- the draftwesleyclark.com team and the Clark2004 contingent -- one group often was unaware of the efforts of the other.
Clark waved off questions about strategy and specifics of his campaign positions. "We pulled together a staff after the decision," he said. "It's early."
Still, some things were going well. A new Web site -- AmericansforClark.com -- was up and running as soon as Clark announced his candidacy Wednesday.
It highlighted many of the themes the campaign hopes to develop, including links for female supporters, whose "Women for Wes" signs were evident in the crowd at Wednesday's announcement in Little Rock.
On a two-hour flight from Little Rock, Clark talked to four reporters for more than an hour, answering questions about domestic issues: