President Bush rushed Tuesday to reverse his assertion that the war on terrorism cannot be won, as his campaign sought to limit the damage from a statement that Democrats had used to paint the commander in chief as defeatist.
"Make no mistake about it: We are winning and we will win," Bush told the 86th annual convention of the American Legion as he continued his journey toward the Republican National Convention for his acceptance speech Thursday night. He said that "in this different kind of war, we may never sit down at a peace table."
"We will win by staying on the offensive," he told the nation's largest veterans organization. "We will win by spreading liberty. We believe that liberty can transform nations from tyranny into peaceful nations." Earlier in the speech, he said, "We meet today at a time of war for our country, a war we did not start, yet one that we will win."
In tone and substance, the remarks differed sharply from the more contemplative words he offered in an interview aired by NBC's "Today" show Monday. Asked about "this war on terror" during that interview, Bush said: "I don't think you can win it. But I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world. Let's put it that way."
The statement Monday was at odds with his own assertions about having a plan to defeat terrorism, and ran counter to his campaign's strategy of portraying the president as optimistic and resolute. It invited an immediate attack from Democrats, who have been on the defensive in recent weeks over attacks on presidential nominee John F. Kerry's Vietnam War record and position on Iraq.
Kerry's campaign gleefully responded to Bush's American Legion speech Tuesday with a news release headlined, "Bush Flip-Flops on Winning the War on Terror," then tried to top that a few moments later with another echo of a Republican attack on the Massachusetts senator, "Bush: Against Winning the War on Terror Before He Was for It."
"A president of the United States should be unflinching in his resolve toward the war on terror," Kerry's running mate, John Edwards, said in a statement Tuesday. "Saying we can't win one day and flipping around the next day sends exactly the wrong message to the American people, to the world -- and most importantly -- to the terrorists who seek to harm us."
Some officials in both parties said Bush's original comment was a more introspective and candid response than the stark pronouncements he often makes on the stump. Bush told NBC's Matt Lauer that he has a two-pronged strategy for coping with terrorists. "On the one hand is to find them before they hurt us. And that's necessary," he said. "The long-term strategy is to spread freedom and liberty. . . . I believe that democracy can take hold in parts of the world that are now nondemocratic, and I think it's necessary in order to defeat the ideologies of hate."
But advisers determined that in the super-heated homestretch of the campaign, the answer could not stand. Bush's campaign has kept Kerry off-balance for many months by using his own words to mock him in ads and during presidential events. Several strategists close to Kerry asserted that despite Bush's revision, the quote would become a standard talking point for Democrats, who contend the president has twisted the senator's words repeatedly.
After speaking in Nashville, Bush flew to Alleman, Iowa, to speak at a rally staged by his campaign adjacent to the Farm Progress Show, a machinery and equipment exposition, and told conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh in a telephone interview from there that he "probably needed to be a little more articulate."
"Listen, I should have made my point more clear about what I meant," Bush told Limbaugh. "What I meant was that this is not a conventional war. It is a different kind of war. We're fighting people who have got a dark ideology, who use terrorists, terrorism, as a tool. They're trying to shake our conscience. . . . And in a conventional war, there would be a peace treaty or there would be a moment where somebody would sit on the side and say, 'We quit.' That's not the kind of war we're in, and that's what I was saying."
Bush had said in the past that he has "a clear vision and a strategy to win the war on terror" and that the nation is "going to win the war on terror." He finished last Saturday's radio address about the U.S. response to terrorist threats by saying, "We will prevail."
The president appeared onstage Tuesday with a fellow American Legion member, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who spoke at the Republican convention the night before and traveled with Bush the rest of the day. Veterans have been a traditionally Republican constituency but are considered up for grabs this year because Kerry is a decorated Vietnam War hero and U.S. casualties in Iraq continue to mount. Democrats fear, however, that Kerry's claim on veterans has been badly hurt by advertisements from Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacking his service in Vietnam.
The "Today" comment was the second time since August that Bush's remarks had indicated he was thinking about terrorism more deeply than his regular sound bites might indicate. "We actually misnamed the war on terror," he told the Unity: Journalists of Color convention. "It ought to be the struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world."