Calling war divisive for the country, President Bush (search) said he will continue pursuing diplomatic rather than military options to try to get Iran to halt its nuclear program.
Earlier this month, Iran confirmed it had resumed building nuclear centrifuges, which can be used to enrich uranium to weapons grade, and declared it should have the right to advanced nuclear technology.
While he's "deeply concerned" by Iran's actions, Bush said diplomatic efforts are just beginning there and he's hopeful they will be successful. He noted military action to topple Saddam Hussein's (search) regime in Iraq came only after more than a decade of failed diplomacy.
"The military option is always the last option for a president, not the first," he said in an interview broadcast Tuesday on NBC's "Today" show.
Bush comments came as he continued a campaign swing that will take him to New York, where he'll speak Thursday night to the Republican National Convention (search).
Republicans are using this week to hail Bush's leadership in the war on terror before a public that has grown more skeptical about his presidency. But in the past several days, Bush has made a series of remarks that seem to undercut the image of him being broadcast from the convention — the decisive commander in chief securing America's safety and sure of the course on which he has set the nation.
In a flurry of interviews timed to coincide with this week's convention, Bush acknowledged a "miscalculation" about what the United States would encounter in postwar Iraq after the fall of Saddam's regime and said the "catastrophic success" of a swift military victory there helped produce the still-potent insurgency.
Then, in an interview shown Monday on NBC, he suggested that the war on terror could not be won.
No matter that Bush's comments reflected just the kind of nuanced, deliberative thinking that Democratic challenger John Kerry (search) has often said he is proud to display, but which has also gotten him into political hot water. Democrats wasted no time making the most of Bush's remarks.
"First George W. Bush said he miscalculated the war in Iraq, then he called it a catastrophic success and blamed the military," Kerry spokeswoman Allison Dobson said. "Now he says we can't win the war on terror. Is that what (chief Bush political strategist) Karl Rove means when he calls for steady leadership?"
"What if President Reagan had said that it may be difficult to win the war against communism? What if other presidents had said it'd be difficult to win the war — the Cold War?" Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards said on ABC's "Nightline" program. "The war on terrorism is absolutely winnable."
Bush's words sent aides scrambling to clarify, taking attention away from the carefully crafted convention and the president's appearances in one battleground state after another.
On Monday, as Bush campaigned in the battleground states of New Hampshire and Michigan, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that what the president had meant was that the war on terror won't be won "in the conventional sense" with formal surrenders or treaties signed. He said Bush's statement was no different from others he made in the past.
The campaign professed not to be worried that the president had gone off-message.
"The American people have watched the president lead the war on terror decisively for three years," Bush-Cheney spokesman Steve Schmidt said. "The people of this country know what his leadership is."
But Bill Carrick, a California-based Democratic consultant, said the comments — even if they were merely unfortunately phrased expressions of mostly obvious truths — are politically dangerous because they speak to the very heart of the president's re-election pitch.
Carrick saw no hypocrisy in Democrats playing the issue, even though they have cried foul over similar attacks on Kerry. For instance, Vice President Dick Cheney criticized Kerry for saying he could fight "a more effective, more thoughtful, more strategic, more proactive, more sensitive war on terror" by singling out for mockery his use of the word "sensitive."
"Turnabout is fair play on this," Carrick said. "Exploit this to the hilt."
On Tuesday, Bush continues his pre-convention barnstorming, traveling to Nashville, Tenn., to speak to the national convention of the American Legion and to Alleman, Iowa, to attend a farm show. He ends the long day of campaigning in another crucial state, Pennsylvania, where he makes a late-evening appearance at a picnic before returning to Washington.
Kerry is speaking before the American Legion (search), the country's largest veterans' organization, on Wednesday.