Clark quits White House race as Kerry takes south by storm

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The Independent US

Former Nato general Wesley Clark today abandoned his hopes of challenging George Bush for the White House after suffering more disappointing primary election results.

He will formally announce the decision this evening, his spokesman says, following a campaign which failed to recover from a stalled start.

Meanwhile, Vietnam war hero John Kerry won another major boost in the race for the Democratic nomination, with decisive victories in the Virginia and Tennessee Primaries.

The senator from the northern state of Massachusetts proved he could win the support of Democrats in the south.

"Once again the message rings out loud and clear, Americans are voting for change - east and west, north and now in the south," Kerry told supporters.

His latest wins were significant because he beat native southerners, North Carolina senator John Edwards, who was born in South Carolina, and Clark, from Arkansas.

Clark's third place finishes behind Kerry and Edwards appeared to be the final straw for the retired four-star general who commanded Nato forces during the Kosovo War.

He almost pulled out of the expensive campaign on February 3 after winning in Oklahoma, but only by the narrowest of margins.

According to reports his wife, Gertrude, talked him out of quitting.

But his spokesman Matt Bennett said early today: "Wes Clark has decided to leave the race. He made this decision after discussing it with his family and his staff.

"It was a very difficult decision to make, obviously. He did it after the final results were in for Tennessee and the decision is final." Clark is scheduled to make a personal announcement at 7pm in the town where he first announced his bid - Little Rock in Arkansas.

Clark was touted as an early favourite, with his military background seen as a strong factor in post-September 11 America.

But his lack of political experience - he has never run for office of any kind before - appeared to be his downfall.

He decided not to campaign in the first state to vote, Iowa, on January 19.

It meant he had no momentum from the start and failed to catch up with Kerry who sprang from the traps.

Kerry, who has won in 12 of the 14 states to hold primaries and caucuses so far, including the influential New Hampshire Primary, said Clark could be "proud" of his campaign.

He said in a statement: "He will no doubt continue to contribute to our party and our country and we look forward to working with him over the next months to defeat George Bush and bring change to America." Meanwhile, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who was considered unbeatable just a month ago, has still failed to win in a single state. He came fourth in Virginia and Tennessee, but has pledged to fight on.

As Kerry's momentum appeared to make him unstoppable, the White House mounted a defence against Democrat attacks on President Bush's military service record during Vietnam.

In the face of questions about President Bush's military service, the White House released pay records yesterday which it said showed he fulfilled his duty as a member of the Air National Guard during the war.

The material included annual retirement point summaries and pay records which, the White House said, showed that Bush served.

But while Bush was defending the skies over America Kerry was on river patrol in Vietnam, wounded several times and decorated for his performance. He became a prominent anti-Vietnam campaigner on his return.

During a recent election campaign appearance he was embraced on stage by a fellow veteran who said Kerry saved his life in Vietnam.

The primaries and caucuses, which are being held over the next few months, determine how many delegates each candidate sends to the party's national convention in the summer.

Effectively, the candidate with most delegates wins the official party backing to run against Bush, who has himself amassed a huge election war chest.

Speculation is now mounting that Edwards might accept the chance to become Kerry's running mate.