WASHINGTON -- John F. Kerry lined up the support of campaign dropout Wesley K. Clark yesterday, hoping to preempt any move by his remaining Democratic presidential rivals to sneak up on him in next week's Wisconsin primary. Democratic officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Clark would bestow his endorsement on the front-runner today in Madison, Wis. Kerry gained Clark's pledge of support as rivals John Edwards and Howard Dean crisscrossed the state, focusing on jobs and health care.
Clark spokesman Matt Bennett would not confirm the endorsement, saying only, "General Clark is looking forward to going to Wisconsin to be with Senator Kerry."
Kerry has racked up wins in 12 of 14 Democratic contests and hopes to add Wisconsin to his column. The backing of Clark, who registered in the low double digits in earlier Wisconsin polls, could increase Kerry's advantage in a state with 72 pledged delegates at stake.
Wisconsin's Democratic governor, Jim Doyle, said yesterday that Kerry's rivals are "really bucking against a strong national trend" as they try to defeat the Massachusetts senator in Wisconsin.
"I think Senator Kerry is in very good position here," said Doyle, who added that he will probably not endorse a candidate before Tuesday's primary. He said Kerry "would be an outstanding nominee."
Doyle, who passed out leaflets for Kerry's failed congressional campaign years ago, said there always is a potential for surprise and "Wisconsin does have a trend of independence."
"On the other hand, what I tend to see happening here is a national event taking place, and not 15 or 16 isolated events. So what polls seem to suggest is happening across the country is happening here as well. Senator Kerry is in very strong position," Doyle said.
The Southern-bred Clark dropped out of the race for the White House on Wednesday after disappointing third-place finishes in Tennessee and Virginia. The retired four-star Army general was unable to command significant support as a first-time presidential candidate, winning just one state -- Oklahoma.
He coupled his withdrawal with words of praise for his remaining rivals -- Kerry, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina and Vermont's former governor, Howard Dean.
"They're good men, they're good Democrats, and they're good patriots," Clark said. "Our country is well served" by them, he added.
Clark, a 59-year-old career military man from Arkansas, burst onto the campaign last fall, supplanting his more politically experienced and better-known rivals at the top of the polls and demonstrating significant fund-raising ability.
"We may have lost this battle today, but I tell you what, we're not to lose the battle for America's future," he said Tuesday. In appealing to voters, Clark relied almost entirely on his 34 years in military service.
Supporters touted other qualities -- his Southern roots and his status as a Washington outsider -- that they contended made Clark the candidate most likely to defeat Bush.
Plus, he provided another forceful voice in condemning the war in Iraq, which he frequently called unnecessary, reckless, and wrong.