Clark narrowly defeats Edwards in Oklahoma primary

Wednesday, February 4th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Oklahoma Democrats have handed retired Gen. Wesley Clark from neighboring Arkansas his first victory, keeping his presidential aspirations alive.

Clark was jubilant and grateful as he talked to supporters Tuesday night about his razor-thin win over North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry finished a strong third.

``The results are in. We have won. Oklahoma is OK by me,'' Clark said. ``I tell you what, as an old soldier from Arkansas, I can't be any prouder of your support in the first election I've ever won.''

``Today across the country, Democrats went to the polls and tonight the people have spoken and the message they sent couldn't be clearer,'' Clark said. ``America wants a higher standard of leadership in Washington.''

He said Republican President George Bush has had three years to move the country forward but has ``moved it in the wrong direction. He's set it back _ three million without jobs, 40 million without health insurance, and an unnecessary war that resulted in a mess in Iraq.''

Clark defeated Edwards by less than 1,300 votes out of about 300,000 votes cast, far less than the 400,000 that had been predicted by election officials. Each had about 30 percent of the vote. Kerry had 27 percent.

Clark campaigned hard in Oklahoma in the days before the election and ran well ahead of Edwards in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, the state's largest cities.

Edwards' strength was in rural areas and in traditional Democratic strongholds in southeastern and northeastern Oklahoma.

Clark, Edwards and Kerry were the only candidates who received enough votes to earn Oklahoma delegates. Clark got 15 delegates, Edwards got 13 and Kerry got 12.

Most polls had shown Edwards trailing Clark and Kerry in Oklahoma and a spokeswoman said the North Carolina senator had plenty to celebrate on Tuesday.

``Sen. Edwards had a very strong performance in Oklahoma,'' said Kim Rubey, his Oklahoma press secretary. ``He has the right message and he is the right messenger. On top of our strong win in South Carolina, this gives us strong momentum heading into the final stretch. We're very happy.''

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman finished well back in fourth place. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean finished fifth.

Clark campaigned in Oklahoma seven straight days before the election, but an Associated Press exit poll showed 40 percent of Democrats had made their choice last week.

The AP survey also showed Clark got support from liberals and those who most valued a candidate who stands up for what he believes.

Nearly four out of 10 voters came to the polls worried about the economy, and Edwards outpaced Clark in winning about 40 percent of their vote.

Edwards, who easily led all Democrats in fund-raising in the state, got a boost from former University of Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer, who taped a telephone message on Edwards behalf, which was sent to thousands before Sunday's Super Bowl game.

Oklahoma drew little attention from presidential primary candidates in past elections, but that changed after the state moved its primary from March to a week after the New Hampshire primary.