Kerry apologizes, twice, for remark about Iraq

WASHINGTON -- Sen. John Kerry issued two apologies for remarks that seemed to impugn U.S. troops and abandoned his public schedule Wednesday, but denounced what he called the "campaign of smear and fear" against him as the surreal sequel to the 2...

WASHINGTON -- Sen. John Kerry issued two apologies for remarks that seemed to impugn U.S. troops and abandoned his public schedule Wednesday, but denounced what he called the "campaign of smear and fear" against him as the surreal sequel to the 2004 presidential election echoed across the campaign trail.

The White House and Republican allies orchestrated a cascade of denunciations throughout the day to keep the once-and-possibly-future presidential candidate on the defensive and force other Democrats to distance themselves. Kerry canceled plans to appear with several candidates and returned home to avoid becoming "a distraction to these campaigns."

One of the canceled trips was in Mankato, Minn., for Tim Walz, a Democrat in a close race with 1st District Rep. Gil Gutknecht. The Gutknecht-Walz race, once considered a long shot for Democrats, has evolved into a tossup.

Republican strategists appeared almost gleeful over the contretemps because it revived a favorite target at a time they need to motivate core supporters to vote in Tuesday's midterm elections. Instead of a referendum on President Bush, Republican officials have tried to make the election a choice between two parties with competing visions over taxes, terrorism and Iraq, but have struggled to find a symbol for Democrats. Kerry's comments have allowed Republicans to make him again the face of his party and cast 2006 as a rerun of Bush vs. Kerry.

Democrats were aggravated to lose two days in the homestretch that they would rather have devoted to Bush's troubled Iraq policy, and pressed Kerry to apologize and get out of sight. Hoping to change the subject, Democrats seized on comments by Bush, who told reporters that he wants Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to remain in their jobs for the final two years of his administration.


To reassert their main message, Democrats planned a blitz of final-weekend television advertising blasting Bush for his management of the war; Republicans, meanwhile, poured more money into once-safe districts in a sign that the field of competitive races may still be expanding. Polls and strategists in both parties indicate that the Democrats are in position to win the House and are running neck-and-neck to take the Senate.

Republicans decided to make a last-minute bid to help two GOP senators. Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., trail Democratic challengers but appear within striking distance, according to GOP strategists. Democrats need to all but sweep the most competitive Senate races to win control.

But much of the day's political conversation centered on Kerry. His return to the national spotlight provided a new opening to Republicans, who have been battered through much of the fall by the political fallout from escalating violence in Iraq, the House page scandal and new corruption probes.

Speaking to an audience in California on Monday, Kerry said: "Education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. And if you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."

Kerry said Wednesday he meant it as a dig at Bush, and his office released a copy of the prepared remarks he was supposed to deliver: "I can't overstress the importance of a great education. Do you know where you end up if you don't study, if you aren't smart, if you're intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush."

Rejecting the explanation, Republicans developed a Web campaign ad demanding he apologize and issued statements mocking him.

Bush for the second day took aim at his old foe as well. "It didn't sound like a joke to me," he said in an interview with news services. In a separate interview with radio host Rush Limbaugh, Bush said, "Anybody who is in a position to serve this country ought to understand the consequences of words, and our troops deserve the full support of people in government."

Cheney also jumped into the fray, his office so eager that in a rare move it sent out advance excerpts from a speech later in the day. "Senator Kerry says he was just making a joke and he botched it up," Cheney said. "I guess we didn't get the nuance. He was for the joke before he was against it."


Around the country, Republicans pressed Democratic opponents to respond to Kerry's remarks. "Whatever the intent, Senator Kerry was wrong to say what he said," said Democrat Harold E. Ford Jr., who is a tight Senate race in Tennessee. "He needs to apologize to our troops."

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., likewise condemned the remarks. "What Senator Kerry said was inappropriate," she said at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post. She added: "We don't need to be reciting the 2004 election, as much as President Bush would like that to happen. This election is about him and his policies."

Kerry tried twice to explain himself Wednesday. After a Democratic candidate asked him not to campaign with him, Kerry canceled the rest of his schedule and called into the Don Imus radio talk show, which is simulcast on MSNBC, to say it was Bush who owes the nation an apology for a botched war.

"They're trying to change the subject," Kerry said. "It's their campaign of smear and fear. ... This is Swift Boat stuff all over again."

Kerry's apology did not satisfy critics, so by day's end, he issued a written apology: "I sincerely regret that my words were misinterpreted to wrongly imply anything negative about those in uniform and I personally apologize to any service member, family member or American who was offended."

Kerry's blunder could kill his ambitions to run for president in 2008, said Jeffrey Berry, a Tufts University political science professor. "He couldn't have been more inept," Berry said. "John Kerry represents everything that Democrats have come to dislike about their own party -- weakness, indecisiveness, strategic errors -- and this just adds to it."

The Associated Press and Boston Globe contributed to this report.

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