MADISON, Wis. – Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search), arriving Sunday at a remote resort to practice for this week's debate, took a swing at President Bush (search) for pronouncing the Iraqi mission accomplished while the monthly death toll mounts.
"I will never be a president who just says mission accomplished. I will get the mission accomplished," Kerry said to a small group of supporters waiting on the airport tarmac.
Bush said, in an interview to be broadcast Monday, that he would not back down from his May 1, 2003, statement on an aircraft carrier declaring major combat operations over under a banner that read "Mission Accomplished."
Kerry was taking a break from nearly nonstop campaign travel to prepare for the debates in a closely divided state that both candidates want to capture.
"It's Wisconsin," said spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter, when asked how the campaign picked the locale. "It's a remote area where we can concentrate and focus and still get out to talk to voters as much as possible."
His debate preparation schedule in Spring Green, Wis., remains flexible, aides said. Kerry plans to some time out on the campaign trail Monday for a town hall-style meeting with local voters. He had one practice debate with sparring partner and friend Greg Craig last weekend in Boston.
In Crawford, Texas, where the president spent about four hours this weekend preparing for the debate, White House communications director Dan Bartlett (search) called Kerry a "seasoned" debater against whom Bush would merely "hold his own." But then Bartlett accused Kerry of taking more than one position on foreign policy issues -- the subject of the first debate.
In Washington, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliff called Bush a `great debater," but said the president wins match-ups on "style not substance."
At podiums set up in a conference area of the ranch, Bush practiced a couple hours Saturday and then another two hours Sunday morning. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., played Kerry. Mark McKinnon, media adviser for the Bush-Cheney campaign, was the moderator.
"Obviously, President Bush has had to practice twice as hard to learn all the different positions that John Kerry has taken on the big issues of the day," Bartlett said. "But he's ready to hold his own."
The Kerry campaign prepares for the debates with a lesson in mind from 2000, when they believe Republicans successfully portrayed Al Gore as having a tendency to exaggerate, carrying that through the analysis after the debates.
"They won the spin war coming out of that debate," Cutter said.
Kerry's been working to portray Bush as a leader who's repeatedly made bad choices, pointing to the volatile situation in Iraq.
Kerry said Sunday it was "unbelievable" that Bush would "do it all over again and dress up in a flight suit and land on an aircraft carrier and say mission accomplished again."
Bush says in an interview to be aired Monday on Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor" that he "absolutely" would have repeated the announcement, saying he was saying thanks to the troops.
The Kerry campaign said Sunday it erred when answering a questionnaire for Outdoor Life magazine and said that the Massachusetts senator counts a "Communist Chinese assault rifle" as a favorite gun.
The gun is actually an inoperable single bolt rifle, not an assault weapon, said spokesman David Wade. "The Kerry campaign should have described it as an old military rifle," he said.
The senator also owns a double-barrel 12-gauge shotgun for hunting, aides said.