MADISON, Wis., Sept. 26 -- John F. Kerry excoriated President Bush on Sunday for saying that he had no regrets about his declaration more than a year ago that the mission in Iraq was accomplished, when the country continues to be in a state of war.
"I will never be a president who just says, 'Mission Accomplished.' I will get the mission accomplished," Kerry told a couple of hundred supporters who gathered to greet him when he arrived here en route to a secluded resort to prepare for his first presidential debate Thursday.
Kerry was referring to an interview Bush gave Bill O'Reilly of Fox News in which O'Reilly asked Bush whether he would still do the carrier landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln beneath the "Mission Accomplished" banner. At the time, 16 months ago, Bush referred to Iraq as a "victory" and declared an end to major combat there.
"Absolutely," the president replied in the interview, to air on Monday's "O'Reilly Factor." O'Reilly, apparently surprised, replied, "You would?" "Of course," Bush continued. "I'm saying to the troops, on this carrier and elsewhere, 'Thanks for serving America.' Absolutely. And by the way, those sailors and airmen loved seeing the commander in chief. . . . You bet I'd do it again."
In April, White House senior adviser Karl Rove told an editorial board meeting with the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio that the "Mission Accomplished" sign had been a mistake. "I wish the banner was not up there," Rove said. "I'll acknowledge the fact that it has become one of those convenient symbols."
Arriving in Madison mid-afternoon, Kerry held a five-minute rally on the tarmac and ridiculed Bush for "insisting that the situation [in Iraq] is improving, that freedom is on the march. . . . The president continues to live in a fantasy world of spin."
Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards, also mocked Bush on Sunday, telling 1,500 raucous supporters at the armory in Lewiston, Maine, that "these people are so out of touch."
"Best I can tell, the only two people in America who think things are going well [in Iraq] are George Bush and Dick Cheney," Edwards said. Edwards also railed against an attack ad, sponsored by the pro-Bush group Progress for America, that shows Osama bin Laden and says a Kerry victory would make the world more dangerous. "The truth is, they're trying to exploit one of our nation's greatest tragedies for personal gain," Edwards said. "It's immoral and it's wrong."
In the Fox interview, portions of which were released Sunday, Bush was asked whether he was willing to use military force if Iran continued to defy the United States and its allies by developing a nuclear weapon. "Well, let me try to solve it diplomatically first," the president said. "All options are on the table, of course, in any situation."
Bush said he was not aware in advance of the anti-Kerry ads by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which received legal advice from a lawyer who also advised the Bush-Cheney campaign. Asked whether White House senior adviser Karl Rove knew anything about it, Bush said, "I don't think so." Asked whether anyone from his campaign had received a heads-up that the ads were coming, the president replied, "Not to my knowledge."
Meanwhile, both candidates are in the throes of preparing for the Thursday debate on foreign policy that analysts say could sway the race in battleground states. Kerry chose to practice at a resort in Spring Green, Wis., so that he could be visible in the state for the next few days.
Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said Sunday that Kerry has watched Bush's debates with then-Texas Gov. Ann Richards, whom Bush defeated in 1994. Cutter also said that the campaign was gleaning clues from Bush's style in the 2000 debates with Al Gore, in which the president was widely viewed as the winner.
"I think what we all learned from 2000 is that the Bush people went in with a theory of that debate and stuck with that theory: . . . Gore was an exaggerator," Cutter said. "They won the spin war coming out of that debate."
Cutter said the Democratic challenger participated in one practice session last week with Gregory B. Craig, the Washington lawyer and adviser who was selected to portray Bush in the practices.
Bush stayed out of sight at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., and held a debate practice for the second time in two days with Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who has been playing the role of Kerry. Bush's chief ad strategist, Mark McKinnon, served as moderator. Since July, Bush has done about four formal debate run-throughs lasting a couple of hours each.
Aides portrayed Bush's preparations as casual, pointing out that he also has done a little fishing and a lot of mountain biking. White House spokesman Dan Bartlett said Gregg had spent most of the time attacking, since that is what Bush's team expects from Kerry. "President Bush has had to practice twice as hard to learn all the different positions that John Kerry has taken on the big issues of the day," Bartlett said.
Allen reported from Texas. Matthew Mosk, with Edwards, contributed to this report.