WASHINGTON — Thrust into the midst of the midterm election campaign, Sen. John Kerry apologized Wednesday to “any service member, family member or American who was offended” by remarks deemed by Republicans and Democrats alike to be insulting to U.S. forces in Iraq.
Six days before the election, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee said he sincerely regretted his words were “misinterpreted to imply anything negative about those in uniform.”
In a brief statement, Kerry attacked President Bush for a “failed security policy.” Yet his apology, issued after prominent Democrats had urged him to cancel public appearances, was designed to quell a controversy that party leaders feared would stall their drive for big gains on Nov. 7.
Kerry beat a gradual retreat in his return to the national campaign spotlight. Earlier in the day, appearing on the radio program “Imus in the Morning,” the Massachusetts senator said he was “sorry about a botched joke” about President Bush. He heaped praise on the troops, adamantly accused Republicans of twisting his words and said it was the commander in chief and his aides who “owe America an apology for this disaster in Iraq.”
Democrats cringed, though, at the prospect of the Massachusetts senator becoming the face of the party for the second consecutive national campaign. “No one wants to have the 2004 election replayed,” said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.
'A real dumb thing to say'
A congressional candidate in Iowa said swiftly he no longer wanted him to appear at a scheduled rally. Kerry abandoned plans to attend events in Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
“Whatever the intent, Senator Kerry was wrong to say what he said. He needs to apologize to our troops,” said Rep. Harold Ford Jr., locked in a close Senate race in Tennessee.
“It was a real dumb thing to say. He should say sorry,” added Claire McCaskill, the Democrat in an equally tight Senate campaign in Missouri.
The White House accepted Kerry’s statement as a legitimate apology.
“Senator Kerry’s apology to the troops for his insulting comments came late but it was the right thing to do,” White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said.
She said it was too soon to say whether the White House would now stop noting the controversy. “We’ll see,” Perino said. “Once he has apologized, I don’t know that there is anything more to say.”
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Moments after Kerry issued his statement, House Majority Leader John Boehner said, “I think he has apologized. It sounds good enough.” He spoke on CNN.
With Bush showing the way, Republicans had worked energetically to turn Kerry into an all-purpose target in a campaign that has long loomed as a loser for the GOP — much as they ridiculed him two years ago on their way to electoral gains.
“Anybody who is in a position to serve this country ought to understand the consequences of words. ... We’ve got incredible people in our military, and they deserve full praise and full support of this government,” Bush said in an interview with conservative talk-radio personality Rush Limbaugh.
“Of course, now Senator Kerry says he was just making a joke, and he botched it up,” Vice President Dick Cheney said in remarks prepared for a campaign appearance in Montana. “I guess we didn’t get the nuance. He was for the joke before he was against it.”
Memories of the last election
The jab was designed to recall Kerry’s inartful comment from the last election that he had voted for $87 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan before he voted against it.
Kerry stirred controversy when he told a group of California students two days ago that individuals who don’t study hard and do their homework would likely “get stuck in Iraq.” Aides said the senator had mistakenly dropped one word from his prepared remarks, which was originally written to say “you end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq.” In that context, they said, it was clear Kerry was referring to Bush, not to the troops.
The controversy erupted at a time Democrats were growing increasingly confident of winning a majority of the House in next week’s elections, and achieving significant gains in the Senate, if not outright control.
Democrats need to gain 15 House seats and six Senate seats to prevail, and victory in either house would allow them to serve as a check on Bush’s conservative agenda for the final two years of his administration.
Democrats have privately told outsiders they have locked up 10 of the 15 GOP-held seats they need. Polls indicate several dozen additional races are competitive, far more than appeared possible at the outset of the campaign, and too many for Republican comfort at a time of opposition to the war and low presidential approval ratings at home. By contrast, only two or three Democratic-held seats remained competitive, according to strategists in both parties, meaning Republicans have little ability to offset gains they suffer on their own turf.
In the Senate, Democrats claim they are on track to defeat four Republican incumbents, including Sens. Mike DeWine in Ohio, Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island and Conrad Burns in Montana. Republicans tacitly concede DeWine and Santorum appear headed for defeat, but the party’s senatorial committee has launched television commercials in the campaign’s final week in an attempt to save Chafee and Burns.
Three GOP seats in real doubt
Barring a dramatic shift in opinion in the campaign’s final days, that leaves only a handful of races in significant doubt, principally three Republican-held seats in Tennessee, Missouri and Virginia.
Unlike 2004, when Bush rallied the country to his side by asking “who do you trust” in wartime, public opinion polls now show the conflict in Iraq is unpopular. Increasingly, Republican candidates have found it politically necessary to emphasize their differences with Bush on a struggle that has dragged on for nearly four years and cost more than 2,800 American lives.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee unveiled a web video during the day, hoping to turn discontent with the war into opposition to Republican lawmakers who have backed the president. Bill Burton, a spokesman, said it would air on cable television nationally, although he provided no details.
The ad features scenes of carnage and an ominous soundtrack, while the announcer says, “With the White House in denial, while top generals warning that Iraq might be sliding into a full scale civil war, tell Congress it’s long past time to put down their rubber stamp and ask the hard questions about Iraq.”
Democratic officials said the leaders of the party’s campaign committees had relayed word to Kerry for him to avoid becoming a distraction. Aides to Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., chairmen of the Senate and House campaign committees, said they would not comment on any possible telephone conversations that had occurred.
In an appearance on the radio program “Imus in the Morning,” Kerry said he had decided to scrap several public appearances “because I don’t want to be a distraction to these campaigns.”
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