Oklahoma Democrats energized, but Bush still man to beat

Thursday, February 5th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Oklahoma Democrats are energized after having presidential hopefuls stump for months in the state.

``I think Tuesday's presidential primary has given us momentum, a jump start for all of our races _ the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House and the Legislature,'' said Jay Parmley, state Democratic chairman.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark from neighboring Arkansas eked out his first primary victory in Oklahoma over North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry finishing a strong third.

Clark stands to grab off 15 delegates because of his primary showing and picked up another delegate on Wednesday when Parmley changed his status from an uncommitted ``super'' delegate to a Clark supporter.

Parmley had previously said he would be a delegate for the candidate who won Oklahoma's primary.

According to unofficial election results, Edwards finished second to Clark by less than 1,300 votes. He grabbed 13 delegates to go with two super delegates who had earlier endorsed the senator. They are state Sen. Debbe Leftwich, the party's vice chairwoman, and Jim Frasier, national committeeman.

Two other super delegates _ U.S. Rep. Brad Carson and national committeewoman Betty McElderry _ had committed to Joe Lieberman, who finished fourth in Oklahoma and dropped out of the race.

A spokeswoman said Carson is now uncommitted, as is McElderry. ``I'm being coy. I just liked to be wooed. I really haven't made up my mind,'' McElderry said.

A spokesman said Gov. Brad Henry is still uncommitted. ``He's also not revealing who he voted for because he doesn't want that to be construed as an endorsement,'' said Paul Sund, Henry's communications director.

Kerry got 12 delegates by getting 27 percent of the vote. While Clark received more votes than Edwards, statistically they both got 30 percent of the vote.

A few weeks ahead of the election, before his wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, Kerry had only 3 percent of the vote in one poll and Howard Dean was the front-runner with 24 percent. Dean wound up with 4 percent in Oklahoma's primary on Tuesday and no delegates.

Republicans favored Bush over little-known Bill Wyatt of Los Angeles on Tuesday.

Gary Jones, state Republican chairman, said the primary was ``probably good for the Democratic Party'' in Oklahoma, but Bush remains the man to beat.

``Once it narrows down to one Democratic candidate, that's when Bush will start pulling away,'' Jones said. ``When they start comparing candidates, there will be a large number of conservative Democrats who will be voting for Bush.''

Parmley conceded history is on the side of the GOP. Since 1948, Lyndon Johnson in 1964 is the only Democrat to carry Oklahoma in a presidential race.

``Our goal is to win, of course, but the real goal is to close the gap _ to make sure George Bush doesn't walk away with a 60-40 victory in Oklahoma,'' Parmley said.

Parmley said he was pleased with the turnout of about 300,000, more than double those who voted in the last presidential primary.

Oklahoma drew attention from Democratic candidates on a large scale for the first time since the state went from a caucus to a primary state in the 1980s.

The interest was spurred by the late Sen. Keith Leftwich's legislation moving the primary date from March to one week after the New Hampshire primary.

Leftwich was the husband of Debbe Leftwich, a party official. She was elected to his Senate post after her husband lost a lengthy battle with cancer last year.