July 1, 2008 -- Retired Gen. Wesley Clark stuck to his guns today, insisting that Sen. John McCain's experience as a POW made him a true American hero but did not qualify him to be commander-in-chief.
It was the latest salvo in the pre-July 4th presidential skirmishes that revolve around each candidate's patriotism.
Clark, who was the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO forces during the Kosovo War and a one-time Democratic presidential candidate, told "Good Morning America" today he wasn't questioning McCain's patriotism or courage.
But he repeated the comments that have already been rejected by Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama.
Clark, who described himself as "someone who came home from Vietnam on a stretcher," said being in combat doesn't necessarily qualify someone to be president.
"It depends on which level you served," Clark told "GMA."
Being a fighter pilot in the Navy "isn't the same as having been in the highest levels of the military and having to work with the president and other heads of the state and make those kinds of life or death decisions about national strategic issues."
Clark said McCain's experience as a squadron leader and his five years in a Vietnam POW camp "shows character and courage, but not necessarily judgment."
"I hope the American people will discriminate between someone's early experiences and the kind of judgment they take away from those experiences," Clark said.
Clark wasn't the only Democrat downplaying McCain's war experience. Informal Obama adviser Rand Beers said that McCain's long stretch in the Hanoi POW camp probably hampered rather than helped his perspective about the effects of war on Americans.
"Because he was in isolation essentially for many of those years and did not experience the turmoil here or the challenges that were involved for those of us who served in Vietnam during the Vietnam war," said Beers, a Marine veteran who served in Vietnam.
"So I think," Beers continued, "to some extent his national security experience in that regard is sadly limited and I think it is reflected in some of the ways that he thinks about how U.S. forces might be committed to conflicts around the world."
Combat experience -- or lack of -- routinely becomes part of the debate during a presidential campaign, but it is rarely decisive in an election.
The elder President George Bush was a fighter pilot who was shot down in World War II while Bob Dole's World War II injury -- a paralyzed right hand -- had no effect on his losing the Republican bid. Democratic Sen. John Kerry won three Purple Hearts and two medals in Vietnam but was actually attacked over his war record.
Former President Bill Clinton and the current President Bush, meanwhile, were both accused by critics of being draft dodgers during the Vietnam War and were both elected to two terms.
Clark, whose name has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate, told "GMA" that his comments about McCain were not part of an Obama campaign strategy.
"Sen. Obama had nothing to do with this," Clark said. "I'm very sorry this distracts from the message of patriotism that Sen. Obama wants to get out."
It was a remarkable measure of the Obama campaign's frustration over false rumors -- that Obama was born overseas, that he is a Muslim and that he refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance -- that the candidate for the White House felt compelled to give a speech this week insisting he loves America and is patriotic.
In that speech, Obama said, "I will never question the patriotism of others in this campaign."
He added, however, "I will not stand idly by when I hear others question mine."