By Jim VandeHei and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 1, 2006
President Bush last night accused Sen. John F. Kerry of disparaging U.S. troops in Iraq, echoing the 2004 strategy of ridiculing the Massachusetts senator to raise anew questions about Democratic leaders and their commitment to the troops. The highly coordinated White House effort came as Republicans sought to shift the focus away from an unpopular war and GOP scandals that are putting their congressional majorities at risk.
The controversy erupted after Kerry told a California audience on Monday: "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."
Yesterday, Bush, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the American Legion and many GOP candidates pounced on the comment from the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee to accuse him of insulting U.S. troops. The president said Kerry owes service members an apology -- echoing a parade of prominent Republicans who criticized the Massachusetts Democrat throughout the day.
After reading Kerry's comments to a GOP audience in Georgia, Bush said Kerry's statement was "insulting and it is shameful. The members of the United States military are plenty smart and they are plenty brave, and the senator from Massachusetts owes them an apology." The White House tipped off the networks to when Bush would attack Kerry, so the comments could be carried live and make the evening news.
In his defense, Kerry said that his comment was a "botched joke" and that he was referring to Bush's intellect, not that of American military personnel serving in Iraq.
In a statement released only moments after Bush spoke, Kerry said: "I make apologies to no one about my criticism of the President and his broken policy that kills and maims our heroes in Iraq every single day. This pathetic attempt to distort a botched joke about President Bush is a shameful effort to distract from a botched war."
The unusual back-and-forth that has little to do with the 2006 midterm elections comes as Democrats are planning to end the campaign by bashing Bush and GOP candidates for supporting the U.S. war policy. A senior Democratic strategist said the party will run Iraq-focused ads in at least 15 of the most competitive House races between now and Election Day.
The strategist, who would not discuss internal strategy on the record, said the Kerry comments are an unnecessary distraction but would soon be forgotten. Democrats, who faulted Kerry for failing to respond forcefully enough two years ago, said the senator fell into a GOP trap of debating Democratic support for the troops instead of Bush's management of the war.
With less than one week until the elections, Democrats are trying to expand the number of competitive House races by running ads in districts that are normally reliably Republican. The list includes the districts of several GOP incumbents, including Rep. Ron Lewis (Ky.), who won in 2004 with more than 60 percent of the vote. It is not just Democrats who see the House playing field expanding. The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan handicapper of races, added the races of several Republicans to its chart of highly competitive contests, including the one for Rep. Jim Ryun's Kansas seat, for which Democrats started running ads over the weekend.
All these numbers and rankings show that Democrats have successfully expanded the playing field beyond the traditional 20 to 30 competitive races the parties have fought over for the past several cycles. As a result, Democrats no longer have to win 80 percent of the tossup races to win the 15 seats they need for the majority. They have built in some room for error and, by doing so, have improved their chances of taking control on Nov. 7.
Republicans -- whose endgame strategy is to limit losses -- are trimming spending for open seats in Colorado and Ohio, which they expect to lose, to help protect endangered GOP incumbents in the final days. They plan to end the campaign by warning that a Democratic Congress would raises taxes and liberalize social policy.
Some candidates are also playing up the economy, with a Washington Post-ABC News survey finding consumer confidence at a three-year high. Republicans said some races that looked bleak a few weeks ago appear more competitive, citing the contest for the Texas seat vacated by former House majority leader Tom DeLay.
In the Senate races, Democratic strategists said that, based on their internal polls, Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) now appears more vulnerable than Sen. James M. Talent (R-Mo.). Several public polls released over the past few days show former Navy secretary James Webb (D-Va.) leading Allen.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee plans to spend an additional $1 million to prop up Allen. Republicans also intend to spend more money than originally planned to assist Sen. Conrad Burns (Mont.) in a race that many GOP strategists had written off a few weeks ago. Democrats need to pick up six seats to win control of the Senate.