WASHINGTON – Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry fired back Friday at Republicans who have criticized a statement he made earlier this week in which he said it was time for "regime change" in the United States.
"They're trying to shift this in a phony way that they often do and making some sort of false claim about patriotism, and I am not going to be questioned on my patriotism by the likes of Tom DeLay," the Massachusetts senator said, referring to the House majority leader.
On Thursday, DeLay called Kerry's remarks "desperate and inappropriate," referring to Kerry's Wednesday statement in front of an audience of New Hampshire Democrats.
At the event at the Petersborough Town Library, Kerry told a crowd of about 100 voters: "What we need now is not just a regime change in Saddam Hussein and Iraq, but we need a regime change in the United States."
The remarks were similar to those he first made in California early in March, before the war against Iraq and the effort to get rid of Saddam Hussein was under way.
"What we need is regime change right here in America," Kerry said.
Though similar, the remark made after the war drew criticism from plenty in the Republican Party, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.
"Petty partisan insults launched solely for personal political gain are highly inappropriate at a time when American men and women are in harm's way," said Frist, R-Tenn.
New Hampshire and Iowa polls indicate a majority of Democratic voters oppose the war.
Kerry voted for using force against Saddam last year. Since then, he has often criticized President Bush's Iraq policy, leading some Democrats, including rival presidential candidate former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, to accuse Kerry of trying to have it both ways.
Kerry, who leads in most polls, has largely ignored attacks from the trailing Dean, but with the Republicans coming after him, Kerry dug in.
"The real test of patriotism is in how you make America stronger and we fought for the right to be able to talk in this country about real choices. And they come along with these phony claims. I am not going to be deterred by them. I am not going to be pushed around by them," he said.
Republicans see political value in attacking the perceived Democratic frontrunner and at the same time defending the commander-in-chief.
Kerry defends his remarks as a decorated Vietnam veteran, a fact he notes in every speech, including to a New York teachers union convention in Washington on Friday.
Kerry is the only veteran in the field of nine Democratic presidential candidates, and his aides note that none of the most vocal GOP critics, Delay and Frist included, have served in the military.
Fox News' Naheda Zayed contributed to this report.