MEMPHIS -- Retired Army General Wesley K. Clark, who was swept by a grass-roots effort into the Democratic presidential race, bowed out last night after failing to win in Tennessee, where he campaigned for a week in search the second win of his brief political career. Clark was expected to make his concession speech today in Little Rock, his hometown.
His withdrawal, made in consultation with his family and staffers, came within an hour after he spoke to supporters here -- after finishing third in Tennessee, behind Senators John F. Kerry and John Edwards. But Clark had said nothing then about leaving the race. Clark's aides had huddled in the evening at Memphis's Marriott Hotel to discuss the election returns.
But when a smiling Clark spoke to staff and volunteers just after 9 p.m. Central Standard Time as election returns poured in, his message was cryptic: He congratulated Kerry but conceded nothing, although he did not mention his plans for the upcoming days.
"We may have lost this battle today, but I'll tell you what, we're not going to lose the battle for America's future," Clark said.
The news of Clark's departure was first reported by The Associated Press. Matt Bennett, Clark's communications director, hastily addressed reporters about an hour after Clark's speech, saying Clark made the decision to leave the race at about 10 p.m. after all the returns came in.
But when Bennett appeared on CNN, the news seemed to surprise much of Clark's staff, gathered in the hotel bar. Staffers rushed toward the TV set to watch, some with stunned expressions on their faces. One insider speculated that the news had been leaked to force Clark's hand. In the hotel lobby, some staffers cried; aides said there had been scattered tears throughout the night, though Clark appeared calm and collected.
John Hlinko, who started one of the "Draft Clark" movements that encouraged the general to enter the race, took comfort in what he had accomplished. "What's been created is not just supporters for one election; it's a movement that will transcend this election," Hlinko said. "Never again will people have to wait until elections to choose their candidate. They can draft."
Bennett said the decision was "very difficult" to make. He said Kerry's momentum coming out of his wins in Iowa and New Hampshire was too formidable.
Yesterday was the day Clark and fellow Southerner Edwards of North Carolina were to battle for the mantle of alternative-to-front-runner Kerry.
But the question of whether Clark would survive to fight another political battle hung over the campaign all day, as his campaign buses rolled from Nashville to Memphis, as staffers took souvenir pictures of one another, as Tennessee voters went to the polls in a crucial contest for Clark's political viability. So throughout the day, Clark's future seemed uncertain, even though he had finished first in Oklahoma -- one of seven states holding contests on Feb. 3 -- and only one of two states Kerry has not won.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at email@example.com.