WASHINGTON – Jumping into the controversy surrounding John Kerry's (search) comment that foreign leaders want him to replace the commander in chief, President Bush (search) said Tuesday his Democratic rival should back up his assertion.
"If you're gonna make an accusation in the course of a presidential campaign, you ought to back it up with facts," Bush said in response to a reporter's question Tuesday after meeting with the prime minister of the Netherlands (search).
Amidst all the noise, the actual quote that started the kerfuffle came under question when a reporter said he "mistranscribed" the word "more" into "foreign."
Administration officials continue to press Kerry to say exactly which leaders -- domestic or foreign -- have told the presumed Democratic presidential nominee that they back his candidacy to oust Bush.
And the White House said that if Kerry can't publicly identify anyone, perhaps the Massachusetts senator made up the whole thing.
"If Senator Kerry is going to say he has support from foreign leaders, he needs to be straightforward with the American people and state who they are," according to a White House statement. "Or the only conclusion one can draw is he's making it up to attack the president."
But the New Englander is standing by his claim.
"I'm not making anything up at all," Kerry said in an interview, accusing Republicans of "trying to change the subject" from jobs, health care and other issues.
The senator said "it's no secret" that some countries are "deeply divided about our foreign policy. We have lost respect and influence in the world."
He continued: "I stand by my statement. The point is not the leaders. What's important is that this administration's foreign policy is not making us as safe as we can be in the world."
Meanwhile, in his latest television ads in West Virginia, Bush accuses Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, of voting against American troops.
"Few votes in Congress are as important as funding our troops at war. Though John Kerry voted in October of 2002 for military action in Iraq, he later voted against funding our soldiers," says the ad, set to launch Tuesday.
The 30-second ad labels Kerry "wrong on defense" and says the Massachusetts senator did not support bills that would have ensured troops had body armor and earned higher combat pay, and that would have given reservists and their families better health care.
Kerry campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said the bills included provisions for no-bid contracts that were "a clear giveaway to Bush's friends," and claimed that Bush is the only candidate that has "turned his back on those troops."
"While John Kerry is committed to these troops, he's not going to help Bush further his failed policies," Cutter said.
Bush advisers say the ad may run elsewhere where polls show it would be successful, if not nationwide.
Foreign or Domestic?
The Boston Globe reporter who first reported the foreign leaders statement now says he messed up and that, after listening to his tape recorder again, Kerry never bragged about how "foreign leaders" privately backed his presidential bid.
Reporter Patrick Healy, a political journalist for the newspaper, says he "mistranscribed a key word."
"Listening to the audio recorder now, in the quiet of my house, I hear 'more leaders' and I am certain that 'more leaders' is what Senator Kerry said," Healy said.
White House officials said it doesn't even matter what the exact wording was and that the administration hasn't heard anything like that from leaders Bush has met with.
"I don't think it changed the context of his remarks," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters Tuesday. "Senator Kerry's the one who made the statement. If he made it, he ought to back it up for the American people."
McClellan said it's not the first time Kerry's made assertions and not backed them up, and not just on foreign policy.
Former vice-presidential and presidential hopeful Sen. Joe Lieberman told Fox News Tuesday that the nasty fight is typical in an election year.
"Unfortunately, that's the state of our politics today. It's a tough election, very partisan atmosphere," said the Connecticut senator, who appealed to both politicians not to get caught up in partisan bickering and lose site of the ultimate goals.
"There's so much on the line in the war against terrorism and the successful completion of the war in Iraq," Lieberman said, adding that good debates are needed on those subjects. "I believe Senator Kerry and President Bush both share the same goals in that regard."
Kerry Campaigns in West Virginia
Kerry was heading to West Virginia to meet with fellow veterans and await the Tuesday results of the presidential primary in Illinois. He already has won more than enough Democratic convention delegates to win the presidential nomination.
Kerry's scheduled visit to Huntington and Charleston reflects West Virginia's newfound importance on the electoral map. Once considered reliable territory for Democrats, the state voted for Bush over Al Gore in 2000.
In an Associated Press interview, Kerry said Bush forgot his pledge to preserve West Virginia steel jobs when he rolled back tariffs he previously had applied on foreign steel. He also said Bush has reneged on his vow to invigorate the state's coal economy by helping the industry adopt cleaner technology.
"I don't think West Virginians appreciate broken promises," Kerry said. "West Virginia deserves the attention of a presidential candidate who cares."
He blamed Gore's loss in West Virginia on his failure to respond to Republican criticisms of his stance on gun control in the state, where hunting and legal firearm ownership are part of the social fabric.
Kerry said that won't happen to him.
On Monday, Democrat Al Sharpton formally endorsed Kerry, though without ending his own campaign.
Questioned On the Road
At a town hall meeting in Bethlehem, Pa., on Sunday, a man questioned Kerry about his foreign leaders comment.
Cedric Brown implied in his question that Kerry was "meeting with foreign leaders to overthrow Bush" and then said to Kerry: "You lied to us."
"I haven't met with foreign leaders for any overthrow purpose," Kerry responded. "I never said that. What I said was, that I have heard from people who are leaders elsewhere in the world, who don't appreciate the Bush administration approach and would love to see a change in the leadership of the United States."
In an interview with Fox News on Tuesday, Brown -- a registered Republican -- said it’s "unfortunate" Kerry "chose to attack" him and that's he's calling on Congress to investigate Kerry's alleged meetings with foreign leaders.
Fox News' Liza Porteus, Kelly Wright and The Associated Press contributed to this report.