Leading up to the first presidential debate in the 2004 race for the White House Thursday, President Bush (search) told FOX News that he would not think twice about donning a flight suit and board an aircraft carrier again to thank U.S. troops personally for fighting abroad.

"These kids had been on a very long cruise," Bush told FOX News' Bill O'Reilly in a three-part interview, the first of which will air Monday night at 8 p.m. EDT. "They'd been on a cruise to both, in two theaters of war now, Afghanistan and Iraq. I flew out there, and said, 'Thanks. Thanks on behalf of a grateful nation.' You bet I'd do it again."

Click here to read a transcript of the first part of the interview.

In May 2003, Bush, who trained as a Texas Air National Guard (search) fighter pilot, rode in a jet onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare the end of major combat operations in Iraq and to say "thank you" to the U.S. servicemen and women serving their country. Democrats have since criticized the move, arguing that U.S. troops are still dying every day in a dangerous theater and that the president has no clear exit strategy.

"I’m saying to the troops, on this carrier and elsewhere, thanks for serving America," Bush said. "And by the way, those sailors and airmen loved seeing the commander in chief."

Bush's opponent, Democratic Sen. John Kerry (search), slammed the president, saying his visit to the carrier was pure theatrics. He added that the president's insistence that the situation in Iraq is improving is unbelievable.

"My friends, when the president landed on that aircraft carrier, when the president landed, 150 of our sons and daughters had given their lives. Since then, tragically, since he said 'mission accomplished,' tragically, over 900 more have died," Kerry said during a campaign stop in Wisconsin on Sunday.

Kerry said it's more evidence Bush is living in a "fantasy land of spin."

"Entire regions in Iraq are controlled by terrorists. American forces ceded to the terrorists areas of control, yet President Bush keeps insisting that the situation in improving, keeps insisting that freedom is on the horizon, keeps insisting the country is going back, and it's unbelievable that just this morning, that the president has said that he would do it all over again," Kerry said. 

Iraq has been a central part of the campaign debate between Bush and the Massachusetts senator and likely will be a huge issue in the presidential debates, the first of which will be in Coral Gables, Fla., on Thursday night. The president, other Bush officials and Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) maintain that Iraq is on the path toward democracy and that the media are focusing only on the negative events happening in that country.

Bush and Allawi said last week from Washington that Iraq's first free elections will be held in January, despite a rash of kidnappings and other terror attacks trying to derail the democratic process there. Some hot beds of violence of late have been Fallujah and Najaf, in part, because of the radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search) and his loyalists.

While the U.S.-led coalition left it up to the Iraqi government what exact steps to take to rout out al-Sadr and his militia, some have criticized the Pentagon for not just killing off the firebrand cleric.

"I think that the government of Iraq, Allawi, did a good job in Najaf with Sadr … they now control the shrines, and they did so in a way that he, Allawi, thought would be best for the political process," Bush said in the FOX News interview, countering those critics.

"In other words, there's a dual track here. There's a political process going forward, and a security operation going forward. And the two must be parallel. Allawi made the decision that the best operation in Najaf would be to [do it] the way we handled it, and, if they're saying that maybe last fall we should have moved on Sadr, it’s a judgment call that, you know, history will have to look back on."

The president also said a dual track political process is going on in Fallujah, site of insurgent violence since Saddam Hussein (search) was deposed. U.S. and Iraqi forces have conducted various operations there but not a full-out leveling of the city.

"A lot of people on the ground there thought that if we’d have gone into Fallujah at the time, the interim government would not have been established, and if the government would not have been established, we wouldn't have been able to transfer sovereignty," Bush said. "I happen to think the transfer of sovereignty is a key moment in this history of a free Iraq. The reason I believe that is that the Iraqi people are going to follow Iraqi leadership, not U.S. leadership."

Bush also addressed the controversy over the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the loosely regulated, independent 527 group that has launched attack ads targeting Kerry's Vietnam military service, claming the Massachusetts senator doesn't deserve all of his medals and that he exaggerated his claims of valor during that time.

The Kerry camp and Democratic Party have said the Bush-Cheney campaign are behind the ads but the president's camp categorically denies that.

Bush told O'Reilly that he knew nothing about the ads before they aired, and didn't think his senior adviser, Karl Rove, knew about them, either. He said "not to my knowledge" when asked if his campaign was given notice before the ads aired.

On Iran, Bush told FOX News that he wants to use diplomacy and international pressure rather than military force to resolve the nuclear situation in Iran, but all options are on the table.

"We are working our hearts out so that they don’t develop a nuclear weapon, and the best way to do so is to continue to keep international pressure on them," Bush told O'Reilly. "We’ve made it clear, our position is that they won’t have a nuclear weapon."

On another note, the Bush campaign on Monday rolled out a new television ad titled "Searching," highlighting Kerry's statements on the Iraq war. The Republican corner is trying to portray Kerry as an indecisive candidate who shouldn't be trusted to serve as commander in chief.

The ad shows clips of Kerry saying, on different occasions, statements like: "It was the right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein, and when the president made the decision I supported him"; "I don't believe the president took us to war as he should have"; "the winning of the war was brilliant"; it's the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time"; "I have always said we may yet even find weapons of mass destruction"; and "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."

"How can John Kerry protect us when he doesn't even know where he stands?" the ad asks.

Bush and Kerry were taking a break from preparations Monday; Bush was returning to Ohio for the 26th visit of his presidency to talk education at a county fairgrounds in Springfield. Later Monday, his campaign bus was taking him to a rally near Cincinnati, at a park featuring a World War II-era Voice of America station that transmitted pro-democracy broadcasts from 1944 to 1994. Bush has more last-minute debate practice sessions scheduled for Tuesday back at his Texas ranch.

For his part, Kerry is spending the next few days at a Wisconsin golf resort, preparing for the debates. He has a town meeting at Spring Green's junior high school on Monday. He stopped by a local pub on Sunday to watch part of the Green Bay Packers football game.

Kerry told a welcoming crowd in Madison that Wisconsin and its "tradition of open debate" is an appropriate place to prepare for Thursday's faceoff.

Click here to read a transcript of the first part of Bill O'Reilly's interview with President George W. Bush.