NASHUA, N.H. – President Bush (search) ignited a Democratic inferno of criticism on Monday by suggesting the war on terrorism could not be won, forcing his aides to scramble to defend his remarks just as he had hoped to bask in convention accolades.
Bush sought to emphasize the economy -- New Hampshire's (search) appears to be on a rebound -- but his comments on terrorism dominated national attention.
In an interview on NBC-TV's "Today" show, Bush vowed to stay the course in the war on terror, saying perseverance in the battle would make the world safer for future generations. But he suggested an all-out victory against terrorism might not be possible.
Asked "Can we win?" Bush said, "I don't think you can win it. But I think you can create conditions so that the -- those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world."
Democrats, looking for ways to deflect the spotlight from Republicans as they opened their convention in York, pounced.
"After months of listening to the Republicans base their campaign on their singular ability to win the war on terror, the president now says we can't win the war on terrorism," said Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards (search). "This is no time to declare defeat."
"The war on terrorism is absolutely winnable," Edwards said later on ABC's "Nightline."
"I decided a year ago that he cannot win the war on terror," said retired Gen. Merrill McPeak, former Air Force chief of staff, at a news conference in New York organized by Democrats.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan sought to clarify the president's remarks, telling reporters, "He was talking about winning it in the conventional sense ... about how this is a different kind of war and we face an unconventional enemy."
"To suggest that the war on terror can't be won is absolutely unacceptable," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"First George W. Bush said he miscalculated the war in Iraq, then he called it a catastrophic success and blamed the military," said John Kerry spokeswoman Allison Dobson. "Now he says we can't win the war on terror. Is that what Karl Rove means when he calls for steady leadership?"
Meanwhile Rove, Bush's chief political strategist, acknowledged that the continuing conflict in Iraq could be a political liability in key swing states such as Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona.
"We're in a war, so you got a lot of people who say, `I don't like the fact that we're in a war. But I want to win the war,"' Rove said in an interview in New York with Pennsylvania reporters.
The coordinated Democratic attack came as Republicans sought to portray Bush as a strong leader in the war on terrorism in the opening session of the Republican National Convention.
Bush suggested in an interview with Time magazine that he still would have gone into Iraq but with different tactics if he had known "that an enemy that should have surrendered or been done in escaped and lived to fight another day."
He called the swift military offensive that led to the fall of Baghdad in April 2003 "a catastrophic success" in light of the fact that fighting continues to this day despite the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's government.
Speaking in Nashua, Bush praised a 3.9 percent unemployment rate that is considerably below the national average of 5.5 percent, below other states in the region and below New Hampshire's July 2003 rate of 4.3 percent. "It's dropping every second," Bush said with a smile as he took credit for the state's gains.
Bush was on a three-day, six-state campaign dash that will bring him to New York late Wednesday.
Later, in Taylor, Mich., he acknowledged at a rally before thousands of supporters that that state's "recovery has lagged." July's unemployment rate of 6.8 percent in Michigan was tied with Oregon for second-highest after Alaska.
He charged that Kerry's longtime support for raising automotive fuel-economy standards would worsen the state's unemployment. Kerry's campaign rejected that.
Bush "is trying to mislead Michigan voters on Kerry's plan to increase fuel efficiency," said Kerry spokesman Phil Singer. Kerry would provide $1 billion to help plants convert to make the autos of the future, Singer said.
"Kerry will ensure that the energy-efficient cars of the future are made in Michigan. Lee Iacocca knows this -- that's why he's supporting John Kerry this year." Iacocca, the former Chrysler Corp. chairman, campaigned for Bush in 2000 but backs Kerry this year.