COLTON, Calif., May 6 -- Sen. John F. Kerry called Thursday for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and savaged the Bush administration over its handling of the discovered abuses of Iraqi prisoners, saying that "as president, I will not be the last to know what is going on in my command."
"These despicable actions have endangered the lives of our soldiers and, frankly, have made their mission harder to accomplish," Kerry told a friendly audience of 400 at a high school here.
"When I was in the Navy, the captain of the boat was in charge, and captain always took responsibility," Kerry said to sustained applause. "I will demand accountability for those who serve, and I will take responsibility for their actions. . . . As commander in chief, I will honor your commitment, and I will take responsibility for the bad as well as the good."
Kerry spoke shortly before President Bush apologized in Washington for the abuse of the prisoners.
After his speech, Kerry said Rumsfeld should resign because of both his "miscalculation" on the war and the escalating outcry over the abuse revelations. "In this context, it compounds it," Kerry said. "It was the way it was handled, the lack of information to Congress . . . not dealing with it. . . . But look this is . . . the frosting. I think Iraq and the miscalculation, and the overextension of the armed forces, and the entire way in which they rushed the nation to war . . . is a huge, historic miscalculation. And I thought he should have resigned then, period."
Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt accused the Massachusetts senator of "playing politics with Iraq: voting for the use of force, then voting against support for our troops in the field, then declaring himself an antiwar candidate."
Kerry's comments -- at the end of a western education swing -- come a day after more measured criticisms of the administration, and at a time when Democrats are increasingly concerned he is too tentative. Some strategists believe the presumptive nominee is allowing Republicans to define him on character issues before the public has gotten a chance to know him.
On Thursday night in Iowa, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie showed supporters two videos of Kerry aimed at demonstrating that the Democratic challenger talks out of both sides of his mouth. One showed Kerry making contradicting statements about whether he owns an SUV, and the other shows him blaming a speechwriter for comments in his stump speech.
"Right now, it's about strength and character because of Iraq -- how George Bush responds and how John Kerry responds," said Tony Coelho, a former California congressman who ran Al Gore's 2000 presidential race. "He has got to tell people how he feels, who he is."
Before his speech, Kerry visited a class at Colton High School and was asked by students about questions critics have raised regarding his service in Vietnam and his war protests. "That's politics," Kerry responded, adding that his critics are trying to "sort of mess me up and throw . . . mud."
Kerry wrapped up his three-day education pitch Thursday with a plan for attracting better teachers through higher pay and tougher accountability standards. He proposed toughening teacher qualifying exams, and instituting minimum federal standards for dismissing bad teachers and additional financial incentives to attract and retain teachers.
"I believe we need to offer teachers more pay, more training, more career choices and more options for education, and we must ask more in return," Kerry said. "Some people who chose to go into teaching will be good, but some will not. It's like any profession. Not everyone always has the ability to make it."
Kerry pledged to allocate $30 billion over a decade for, among other things: mentoring programs for new teachers; initiatives to help parents become more involved in school; $5,000 bonuses for those who agree to teach subjects in which there is a shortage, such as science and math; and an additional $5,000 in salary for some who teach in geographical areas that are not able to attract good teachers. In addition, he proposed a teacher corps, which would give tuition assistance to college students who commit to teaching for four years in an underserved community.
Education sources said there could be resistance to certain parts of the plan, such as federal controls on teacher qualifications, which are historically monitored by states.
But a spokesman for the National Education Association, a powerful teachers lobbying group that supports Kerry, said the profession would probably be receptive to Kerry's plan because it offers a set of complementary proposals.
"If we make it easier to get rid of bad teachers, there has to be a mechanism to get good teachers, and this plan acknowledges that," NEA spokesman Michael Pons said.