WASHINGTON – Sen. John Kerry issued two apologies for remarks that seemed to impugn U.S. troops and abandoned his public schedule Wednesday, but 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, D-Mass., 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. Instead of a referendum on President Bush, Republican officials have tried to make the election a choice between two parties with competing visions over taxes, terrorism and Iraq, but 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 aggravated to lose two days in the homestretch that they would rather have devoted to Bush’s troubled Iraq policy, and pressed Kerry to apologize and get out of sight. Hoping to change the subject, Democrats seized on comments by Bush, who told reporters that he wants Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald 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 blasting 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, R-Mont., and Lincoln Chafee, R-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 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 Wednesday 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 campaign ad demanding he apologize and issued statement after statement blasting and mocking him.