updated 3/26/2004 1:55:26 PM ET 2004-03-26T18:55:26

President Bush’s humorous references to the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq have drawn criticism from Democrats as inappropriate for wartime. The White House and Republicans contend the president was just poking fun at himself.

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“This is a very serious issue,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said Friday on “Good Morning America” on ABC. “We’ve lost hundreds of troops, as you know, over there. Let’s not be laughing about not being able to find weapons of mass destruction.”

Democratic candidate John Kerry’s campaign said in a statement Thursday, “If George Bush thinks his deceptive rationale for going to war is a laughing matter, then he’s even more out of touch than we thought.”

Bush provided amusing descriptions of photographs Wednesday night during the annual dinner of the Radio and Television News Correspondents Association. Some showed the president in awkward poses as he looked behind furniture in the Oval Office. For those photos, Bush told the audience, “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere ... nope, no weapons over there ... maybe under here?”

Laughter erupted from the crowd of journalists, politicians and their guests then and at other times during Bush’s remarks. For years the dinner has featured political and topical humor, most of it playful if barbed at times.

“The Democrats will go after anything,” Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie told ABC. “The fact is that this is the custom in these things. Presidents have made jokes about very serious matters at these dinners. You can hear the laughter, the people in the room obviously saw the humor in it at that moment, and to play it back now in a different context is unfair.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters Thursday she has treated the subject with respect and doesn’t find it funny.

“I had thought that that was a little casual about a serious subject, but now the president has made it open season,” said Pelosi, who attended the dinner.

White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said Thursday the president’s comments were meant to be light.

“It’s traditional at events like this dinner for the president to poke fun at himself,” Buchan said.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was asked Thursday about the appropriateness of Bush’s comments and the audience’s reaction. He said he was “not in a position to be judgmental about that” because he had not been present at the event.

Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton called the joke “one of the most despicable acts of a sitting president” when he spoke Thursday night during a Democratic National Committee reception.

“Well, that’s not a joke to us, Mr. Bush. Five hundred soldiers lost their lives, looking for weapons that weren’t there. Billions of taxpayer dollars were spent looking for weapons that weren’t there,” Sharpton said. “But guess what? You gonna look out that window in January and see a moving van to send you back to Texas.”

McAuliffe said legitimate questions have been raised about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a principal reason for going to war there. Nearly 600 U.S. soldiers have died since the war began in March 2003.

“They’re not there. That is the issue. We should not take it to a new step to make fun of the situation,” McAuliffe said.

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