WASHINGTON – Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry defiantly and in no uncertain terms declared Tuesday that he would "apologize to no one" for statements made a day earlier in which he told a gathering of California college students that if they don't do well in school, they will "get stuck in Iraq."
"I apologize to no one for my criticism of the president and his broken policy," Kerry told reporters in a press conference in Seattle. "My statement yesterday, and the White House knows this full-well, was a botched joke about the president and the president's people and not about the troops."
"Shame on them, shame on them," Kerry said of the Bush administration, which he charged is afraid to debate "real men."
Kerry's bitter words for the administration were sparked by his own comments a day earlier to a group of students during a campaign stop at Pasadena City College for California Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides.
"You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. And if you don't, you get stuck in Iraq," he said.
That remark spread like wildfire across the World Wide Web.
President Bush weighed in on the slight in remarks at a Georgia Victory 2006 rally scheduled Tuesday evening.
"The senator's suggestion that the men and women of our military are somehow uneducated is insulting and shameful. The members of the United States military are plenty smart and they are plenty brave, and the senator from Massachusetts owes them an apology," Bush said.
"Whatever party you're in in America, our troops deserve the full support of our government," he said.
White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters at his daily briefing Tuesday that Kerry's comments are emblematic of his disdain for the military.
"What Sen. Kerry ought to do first is apologize to the troops," Snow said of Kerry's remarks. "The clear implication here is, if you flunk out, if you don't study hard, if you don't do your homework, if you don't make an effort to be smart, and you don't do well you, quote, 'Get stuck in Iraq.' "
"An extraordinary thing has happened since Sept. 11, which is a lot of people, America's finest, have willingly agreed to volunteer their services in a mission that they know is dangerous but is also important," Snow added.
Kerry, speaking to reporters in Seattle, responded by repeating much of what he said earlier in the day in a statement issued immediately after Snow's press briefing.
"I am sick and tired of a bunch of despicable Republicans who will not take responsibility for their own mistakes," Kerry said. "Enough is enough. We are not going to stand for this. ... The American people are going to take this to the polls next Tuesday."
"This administration has given us a Katrina foreign policy: mistake upon mistake upon mistake; unwilling to give our troops the armor that they need; unwilling to have enough troops in place; unwilling to give them the Humvees that they deserve to protect them; unwilling to have a coalition that is adequate to be able to defend our interests," he added.
Kerry claimed in making his "botched joke," he was referring to the administration's failure to study Iraq and its decision to go to war.
He warned reporters that he'd learned the Republican campaign strategy playbook "deep and hard," and vowed not to let Republicans get away with distorting his record, a claim he's made in explaining his failed 2004 presidential race.
"If anyone thinks that a veteran, someone like me, who's been fighting my entire career to provide for veterans, to fight for their benefits, to help honor what their service is, if anybody thinks that a veteran would somehow criticize more than 140,000 troops serving in Iraq and not the president and his people who put them there, they're crazy," he said.
The latest round is just the latest of several nasty proxy battles between Democratic and Republican leaders in the run-up to next Tuesday's election.
In a statement released earlier in the day, Kerry took shots at Snow and other Republicans, including calling Snow a "stuff suit White House mouthpiece."
In "response to White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, assorted right wing nut-jobs, and right wing talk show hosts," Kerry accused his opponents of distorting his comments to divert attention from what he called a dismal record on Iraq.
"I'm sick and tired of these despicable Republican attacks that always seem to come from those who never can be found to serve in war, but love to attack those who did," Kerry said. "I'm not going to be lectured by a stuffed suit White House mouthpiece standing behind a podium, or doughy Rush Limbaugh, who no doubt today will take a break from belittling Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's disease to start lying about me just as they have lied about Iraq. It disgusts me."
Snow countered, asking reporters whether Democratic veterans who are running for office, like Jim Webb in Virginia and Tammy Duckworth in Illinois, really want to stand up next to Kerry.
Republican Sen. John McCain, who, like Kerry, is a decorated Vietnam veteran and potential rival to Kerry should both decide to run in 2008, said in a statement that Kerry "owes an apology to the many thousands of Americans serving in Iraq, who answered their country's call because they are patriots and not because of any deficiencies in their education."
House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, also called on Kerry to apologize, labeling his comments "disrespectful and insulting to the men and women serving in our military."
Kerry fired back at McCain, telling the former Vietnam prisoner of war that he "ought to ask for an apology from (Defense Secretary) Donald Rumsfeld for the mistakes he's made. John McCain should ask for an apology for not sending enough troops" to Iraq.
Angelides is far behind in his bid to unseat Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and retired Gen. Wesley Clark suggested Kerry's remarks are not helpful to Democrats in general.
"I can not explain anything John Kerry said," said Clark, who also ran for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. Clark added that he's spoken to military leaders about the next troop rotation coming. "They tell me the troops are ready. The families are ready back here. They know what they're facing. It's the best army we've ever had."
As the march to Election Day draws to an end, the close nature of the race for the congressional majority has led to an increasingly nasty tit-for-tat among candidates and their proxies.
Other Venues, Bitter Words
In a separate match-up, Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, who would be on tap to take the top post in the House tax-writing panel should Democrats win the House majority next Tuesday, called Vice President Dick Cheney a "son of a bitch" after the vice president said Rangel would raise taxes as head of the Ways and Means Committee.
"Charlie has said there's not a single one of the Bush tax cuts he thinks should be extended. And he could achieve that objective simply by not acting. Unless there's an affirmative action by Congress, legislation passed to keep those rates low, those rates are going back up, and he'd have a massive tax increase," Cheney told FOX News' Neil Cavuto on Monday.
In Tuesday editions of The New York Post, Rangel suggested Cheney needs professional treatment.
"He's such a real son of a bitch, he just enjoys a confrontation," Rangel said, describing himself to the newspaper as "warm and personable." He told the newspaper Cheney may need to go to "rehab" for "whatever personality deficit he may have suffered."
"When you have those sorts of problems, you're supposed to seek help," Rangel said. "He acknowledged that he has problems with communication."
Snow said he talked to Cheney, who got a big laugh from Rangel's remarks.
"In a year in which, again, on these key issues, the Democrats don't have a plan, it does appear that they have an anger management problem," Snow said.
Democrats need six seats to win the Senate and 15 to take control of the House. In order to succeed, candidates are relying overwhelmingly not on their appeal, but on voters' rejection of their opponents.
An assessment of campaign advertising spending shows that in this campaign season, the political parties have spent about $160 million in negative ads compared to about $17 million on positive image message, a rate of about $1 of nice for every $10 of nasty.
"Negative ads only work in two situations — when you are incredibly desperate or when you're incredibly close to the end," Ray Seidelman, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College who has studied political advertising and voter turnout, told The Associated Press.
Republicans argue they will get their voters to the polls and succeed on Nov. 7, much in the way they upset losing predictions in the past. But just in case, they warn that if Democrats win the majority, they will find themselves paralyzed by inaction — unable to appease both the swing and moderate voters who broke for them this election and the party's liberal base, which guides the party's policy positions.
Republicans point to Democratic leaders — Rangel, for instance, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is set to become House speaker after a turnover — to drive home the fear.
"Tony Snow's here today," Republican Rep. Chris Chocola said at an event Monday. "The president's been here many times. The First Lady was here two weeks ago. Where's Nancy Pelosi? Where's Hillary Clinton? Where's Howard Dean? They don't come to Middle America because people don't like the message that they bring."
On the other side, Democrats are consistent in using what they consider the penultimate insult — attacking Republican opponents by calling them rubber stamps for Bush.
"Michael Steele was recruited by George Bush and financed by George Bush and he agrees with George Bush's agenda, said Rep. Ben Cardin, who is running against the Republican lieutenant governor in a closer-than-expected race for the open Maryland Senate seat," Cardin told FOX News.
To counter the argument in the heavily Democratic state, Steele has suggested he's nobody's man, and wants to confront voters' issues by looking outside the political lens.
"Ben Cardin has spent the past year running against George Bush. I've spent the past year running for Maryland. I've been laying out a vision for Maryland that embraces the future, that sees the glass as half full, that sees a great deal of opportunity," he said.
But for Democrats in tight races in traditionally red states like Kentucky, Indiana, Texas and Georgia, they too are looking at compromise over confrontation.
"When I vote for a leader, I am going to vote for a leader who reflects a lot of my own views, and we're conservative to moderate out here, and that's what I believe," said Indiana's 2nd District Democratic candidate Joe Donnelly, who on Monday described the type of speaker he would back if Democrats win the House majority.