By Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 2, 2006
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) issued two apologies for remarks that seemed to impugn U.S. troops and abandoned his public schedule yesterday, but he 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."
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. GOP officials have tried to make the elections not a referendum on President Bush but a choice between two parties with competing visions over taxes, terrorism and Iraq, but they 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 irritated to lose two days in the homestretch that they would rather have devoted to Bush's troubled Iraq policy, and they pressed Kerry to apologize and get out of sight. Hoping to change the subject, Democrats seized on comments by Bush, who told reporters he wants Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. 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 assailing 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 save two GOP senators who had been almost given up for lost. Sens. Conrad Burns (Mont.) and Lincoln D. Chafee (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 the 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 yesterday that 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 quickly developed a Web ad demanding that he apologize and issued statement after statement attacking and mocking him. One released by House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) included a picture that appeared to show soldiers in the desert holding up a banner: "Halp Us Jon Carry -- We R Stuck Hear N Irak."
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 given later in the day. "Senator Kerry said he was just making a joke and he botched it up," Cheney said. "I guess we didn't get the nuance. Actually, 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 Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D), who is in 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 yesterday. After a Democratic candidate asked the senator not to campaign with him, Kerry canceled the rest of his schedule and called in to the Don Imus radio talk show, which is simulcast on MSNBC. Kerry said it is 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."
Asked why not apologize for the misunderstanding, Kerry said: "Of course I'm sorry about a botched joke. You think I love botched jokes? I mean, it's pretty stupid."
Imus reflected Democratic anxieties by asking Kerry to stop talking publicly because it might "ruin" the party's election chances.
"I love you, but just stop it," Imus said. "I'm begging you."
"Well, I think it's important to talk about Iraq," Kerry said.
"I'm begging you," Imus said.
"I hear you," Kerry said. "You do not have to beg. You're my friend. I understand what you're saying. But I'm telling you, I'm not going to let these guys lie and smear."
"Stop now, stop now," Imus said again. "I'm begging you."
"You got it," Kerry said.
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."
Heading into the final days before the elections, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee plans to run an advertisement over the weekend that hits Republicans for not holding Bush accountable on the Iraq war, but the ad buy is small and is scheduled for CNN alone. More than half of Democratic candidates in close races for the House and the Senate are planning ads criticizing Bush for his management of the war.
Republicans, meanwhile, are spending a lot of money protecting GOP seats. The National Republican Congressional Committee launched a $200,000-plus ad to help Rep. Charles H. Taylor (N.C.), who trails Democrat Heath Shuler. As part of its effort to limit losses, the NRCC is spending heavily in Idaho to win an open seat in a conservative part of the country. Rep. Melissa Hart (Pa.), who was not considered in much trouble a few weeks ago, is also getting last-minute help from the NRCC.
Both sides are making last-ditch efforts at long-shot races as well. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee plans to run $1 million in ads against Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). Republicans are making a play for Michigan, where polls show Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow with a steady lead.