PHOENIX - Gen. Wesley Clark toured an activity center in a poverty-stricken neighborhood here yesterday, opening the western front in advance of Tuesday s vital primaries and caucuses in seven states that represent the first nationwide test in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Mr. Clark preached that America needed to “rebuild its sense of community.”
Mr. Clark, running his first political campaign, is leading in Arizona, according to polls, though they show him in a tight group with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
The state, which boasts a population far more diverse than Iowa or New Hampshire - 35 percent of Arizonans are minorities, most of them Hispanic - is a priority for the retired general, and one where his prospects appear brightest. He plans to spend a large chunk of the weekend here, a campaign aide said.
He is also running strong in neighboring New Mexico.
After bypassing the Iowa caucuses, he finished a distant third place in Tuesday s New Hampshire primary, narrowly edging Mr. Edwards.
“What they are doing in this neighborhood is great, Mr. Clark told an overflow crowd of 200 gathered at the activity center.
The Clark campaign introduced a three-part program to “empower communities and build safer neighborhoods.” The proposal would expand after-school programs, give more power to local residents about how their neighborhoods are managed, and would increase funding for local law-enforcement.
“It s a higher standard of leadership, Mr. Clark said of his campaign. “It looks at the next generation, not just at the next election. I am not a professional politician.”
The neighborhood is rough, plagued by gang activity and violence. Old, small cinder block houses, shadowed by ragged palm trees, are giving way to apartment complexes. The elementary school two blocks from the activity center has 1,500 students who collectively speak 17 languages, said Donna Neill, president of the neighborhood association.
But the Marc Atkinson Recreation Center is a focal point for urban renewal. It replaced several decrepit houses and stands as a gleaming outpost with spacious playgrounds and new equipment.
Mr. Clark s emphasis on community issues has won him supporters here, including Ms. Neill, who is the state director of the Neighborhood Activists Interlinked Empowerment Movement, a group with 30,000 members across Arizona.
“The one thing that has impressed me about him is that nobody except him is talking about community. If our community starts cracking, next comes your city, then comes your state, and then comes your country,” she said.
Tuesday s contests will be primaries in South Carolina, Oklahoma, Arizona, Delaware, and Missouri. New Mexico and North Dakota will hold caucuses.