Patriot games for Kerry and Clark in New Hampshire

Two Vietnam veterans are battling for Democrat votes in crucial primary
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The Independent US

Two Vietnam war heroes - one the front-runner, the other the general who has never before stood for public office - are battling here for the veterans' vote this weekend, in a struggle that could have a vital bearing on who wins the Democratic nomination to take on President Bush this autumn.

As the crucial New Hampshire primary entered its final frantic days, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and retired General Wesley Clark criss-crossed the state in search of undecided voters. And no constituency is more important than veterans, who according to the Clark campaign may account for one in seven of the 463,000 registered Democratic and independent voters eligible to take part in Tuesday's election.

The last few days have been a harsh awakening for the general. The Iowa caucuses result turned on its head his calculation that the fiery Howard Dean would ride his opposition to the Iraq war to victory. This in turn would have made the four-star general and former Nato supreme commander into the sole credible "stop Dean" candidate.

Instead, Mr Kerry - like General Clark, decorated for valour in Vietnam - pulled off a stunning victory, and his new momentum threatens to carry all before it here.

Polls show the Massachusetts senator has pulled into a large, widening lead. The latest, by WMUR TV, New Hampshire's most watched station, gave him 37 per cent, followed by Mr Dean with 19 per cent and General Clark with 15 per cent. North Carolina Senator John Edwards was running fourth with 11 per cent, despite his unexpectedly strong second place in Iowa.

While General Clark's support seems to have reached a plateau, Mr Kerry and Mr Dean have almost exactly reversed positions - a measure of how the former Vermont governor has been weakened by his feeble performance in Iowa, capped by his now infamous post-result rant, replayed by every TV station in the land.

Addressing a crowd of 600 packed into a high school gym here on an icy Friday night, General Clark tried to recapture the initiative, delivering an impassioned message of patriotism, faith and duty. He alone, he insisted, had the qualities to right the damage done by Mr Bush and restore America's standing in the world after Iraq.

"The Iraq war wasn't patriotic. The Iraq war was bad, deceptive and wrong.

"And its not my definition of patriotism to dress up in a flight suit and prance around the deck of an aircraft carrier," he said, referring to Mr Bush's sortie to the USS Abraham Lincoln last May to proclaim "mission accomplished" after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Behind the scenes a scramble is on for the veterans' vote. "There's a real battle between Clark and Kerry," said Leigh Wheeler, a former army colonel and self-described "political rookie" who is busy making calls to fellow veterans to urge them to support the general. The friendship between them goes back to West Point, from where they both graduated in 1966. Of their classmates, 20 per cent were killed or wounded in Vietnam.

Last week both General Clark and Mr Kerry made donations to a new shelter for homeless veterans in Manchester, New Hampshire's largest city, in the hope of securing the founder's endorsement - which in the end went to the Massachusetts senator.

Yesterday, Mr Kerry too used the "patriotism" argument against Mr Bush, accusing the President of cutting veterans' benefits even as he trumpeted the virtues of the military: "We're not taking lessons in patriotism from those who don't understand that the first obligation of patriotism is to keep faith with those who fought for their country."

The military rivalry between the two briefly turned nasty on television last week, as the former Nato commander appeared to belittle the Kerry record, suggesting he had stayed in the army to rise to the rank of four-star general, while Kerry had served merely two years as a lieutenant. General Clark then hastily corrected himself, conceding no one was obliged to stay in the military.

If the veteran vote is important here, it may be even more so later in the campaign. Assuming a respectable finish in New Hampshire, General Clark - reared in Arkansas - hopes to make real headway in the south, where military values are particularly resonant. However Mr Kerry also needs those votes to show he has appeal across the country, not just in his native New England and the relatively unrepresentative state of Iowa.

A key test for both men comes on 3 February in South Carolina, a state with a large veteran population and venerable military traditions. That primary could be a last stand for Senator Edwards, born in the state and still well known there.

The White House is already taking aim at Mr Kerry as Mr Bush's potential opponent in November, identifying him as a member of that dreaded species, a "Massachusetts liberal", weak and out of tune with the country.

"Who would have guessed it, Ted Kennedy is the conservative senator from Massachusetts?" joked Ed Gillespie, the Republican National Committee chairman, noting a survey of Congressional voting records that gave Mr Kerry an even higher liberal rating than his home-state colleague.