MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) – Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark came away from a brief chat with diner patrons Saturday wanting two things: their pancakes and their votes.

He didn’t get the first, but was more confident about the second.

“That guy over there, he was a Kerry supporter, and he had the best apple pancake,” the Democratic presidential hopeful told a waitress, only to find out there wasn’t time to order one. But Clark insisted he has plenty of time to win over New Hampshire voters, including those already supporting his nine rivals.

“I like John Kerry,” he said of the Massachusetts senator. “He’s a fine fellow, but I just entered the race, and I’d like them to give me an open look.”

Clark made the same point later at a rally in Dover, urging his supporters to reach out not just to undecided Democrats but to Republicans, independents and those already backing his opponents.

“They’re the professionals, they got in first. You listened to them. You waited for them, and you asked me to join this race,” he said. “You said you wanted me – you’ve got me.”

But Clark said the campaign was not about him.

“This is about us. This is about this country. This is about getting this country moving again,” he said. “This is about keeping this country safe, making this country prosperous and giving it a vision that we can take into the future.”

About 300 people gathered outside City Hall, a few doors down from the campaign office Clark’s supporters opened in July. Many traveled from other northeastern states for Clark’s first official campaign trip to New Hampshire.

“He’s not a politician, and I hope he never becomes a politician,” said Carole Buchanan of Pawtucket, R.I.

Local supporters included John Labby of Seabrook, who pasted a Clark bumper sticker on his minivan, covering up one for Howard Dean.

Labby said he still thinks the former Vermont governor is a “great guy” but he likes Clark’s military and diplomatic experience.

But others were dissatisfied with Clark’s speech in which he declared himself “pro-affirmative action, pro-choice, pro-environment, pro-job, pro-health and pro-education,” but didn’t delve into any of those issues.

“I like him, I have faith in him, but he needs to get a little more experience on the campaign trail. He’s not getting into specifics,” said Linda Ziarnowski, a Democrat from Newmarket who hasn’t settled on a candidate. “I was sort of leaning toward Dean but no one is really grabbing me.”

The latest New Hampshire poll showed Clark in a tie for third in the early voting state, cutting into Dean’s lead and leaving Kerry in second.

Both Dean and Kerry have criticized Clark for praising the Bush administration at a Republican fund-raiser two years ago. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who’s courting the same independents and conservative Democrats that Clark wants, also has questioned Clark’s recent arrival to the Democratic party.

“People are asking what my Democratic credentials are,” Clark told supporters Saturday. “You’re my Democratic credentials – the people of America.”

Though he answered dozens of detailed questions at a town hall forum the night before, Clark focused more on listening Saturday, urging voters to share their “war stories” with him.

At the Manchester Fire Department, Chief Joseph Kane told Clark that federal money once earmarked for firefighters is getting mixed in with homeland security programs.

“Once it gets merged into homeland money, it disappears,” he said. “Everyone’s going to get a good whack at it before it comes down to fire service.”

AP-ES-09-27-03 1641EDT

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