DERRY, N.H. (AP) – Moments after praising his opponents in the Democratic presidential race as worthy running mates, Wesley Clark said, in no uncertain terms, how he would respond if they or anyone else criticized his patriotism or military record.

“I’ll beat the s— out of them,” Clark told a questioner as he walked through the crowd after a town hall meeting Saturday. “I hope that’s not on television,” he added.

It was, live, on C-Span.

Clark was responding to a rambling question by a man who referred to then-candidate George Bush attacking Sen. John McCain’s commitment to veterans in the 2000 primaries. The man asked Clark if he would take the offensive if Bush or any of the other Democrats questioned his trading military caps with a Bosnian general who now is a war crimes suspect, or cited critical comments about Clark by former Army brass.

His campaign was quick to say Clark was speaking rhetorically, and would come out strongly against anyone who challenges his patriotism or military service.

“General Clark is a military man and a fighter,” said the campaign’s national spokesman, Bill Buck. “He’ll stand up to President Bush or any of the administration’s chicken hawks that attack his patriotism, military record or his commitment to veterans, which is one of the reasons why he will beat George Bush.”

Buck balked at commenting on whether Clark was including “the other Democrats” in his response, and refused to comment when asked if Clark regretted making the remark.

The campaign’s traveling press secretary, Jamal Simmons, was with Clark at the time, and said he heard Clark’s answer but not the question. He called it “an unscripted comment from a blunt-spoken leader.”

“If anyone tries to question Wes Clark’s character, integrity or his commitment to this country or its security, they’re going to be in the biggest fight they’ve ever had,” he said.

Earlier, in front of the audience, Clark was asked who his vice president would be. He said he was not ready to choose, but suggested he could consider any of the candidates in the Democratic race.

“There’s such great talent in the Democratic Party,” he said.

In other comments, the retired general said the announcement that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi will allow international weapons inspectors into his country and will halt his weapons programs shows diplomacy, economic sanctions and cooperation among allies can make major changes.

He gave Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain most of the credit.

“It’s a program of squeezing Libya that’s gone on for more than a decade,” he said. “The Clinton administration was very much involved with this.

In a slap at Bush, he said “it shows that you don’t need to use force to get your way in world affairs.”

Clark also said Bush could have done more to prevent the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

“This is the way it works in the Navy,” Clark said. “If you’re the captain of a ship, and it runs aground, they only ask two questions: Did it run aground, and were you the captain? If the answer is yes to both, you’re fired.”

Clark did not say Bush could have prevented the attacks, but he said the Clinton administration warned Bush about the threat of the Al Qaeda network and that Bush should be held accountable for not focusing on the warnings.

“His priority was to break the ABM treaty with Russia so he could invest in missile defense,” Clark said. “He wasn’t paying attention. He didn’t do his job as commander and chief.”

Clark also said if he is elected, he will resume the intense search for Osama Bin Laden, mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.

“We’ll form a U.S.-Saudi joint force,” he said. “We’ll go the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan. We’ll run Osama bin Laden out of his sanctuary,” he said.

AP-ES-12-20-03 1813EST

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