WASHINGTON – The call for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry to apologize to U.S. troops for his "stuck in Iraq" comment reached across the aisle to his own party Wednesday — including one Democrat who called the remark "stupid" — as the embattled senator went into self-imposed exile in hopes of minimizing any political damage days before voters go to the polls.
Among the Democrats joining the chorus critical of Kerry's comment was potential 2008 presidential rival New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who, while stopping short of demanding an apology, called Kerry's comments "inappropriate."
"I think we have to look forward here we don't need to be refighting the 2004 election as much as President Bush would like that to happen," Clinton told reporters at an event for military families in New York. "What Senator Kerry said was inappropriate and I believe we can't let it divert us from looking at the issues that are at stake in our country."
Kerry's "inappropriate" comment came during a campaign appearance Monday in California at Pasadena City College. He told students if they make the most of their educations, "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, a comment that touched off a political firestorm of criticism that has yet to die down.
Meanwhile, White House spokesman Tony Snow, who a day earlier an angry Kerry called a "stuff suit," tried to inject a bit of humor into the controversy, while repeating his call for a Kerry apology.
"I mean this is helpful advice. We're trying to help you out. We're throwing you a lifeline, buddy; just say you're sorry. It's not hard," Snow said Wednesday to raucous laughter from the White House press corps that questioned the sincerity of Snow's assistance.
President Bush told the Associated Press in an interview Wednesday that, "it didn't sound like a joke to me ... More important, it didn't sound like a joke to the troops." He said Tuesday Kerry should apologize.
Other Democrats, meanwhile, joined the call for a Kerry apology, with one — Senate hopeful Jon Tester of Montana — not pulling his punches.
"Senator Kerry's remarks were poorly worded and just plain stupid," said Tester, the Montana Senate president trying to unseat GOP Sen. Conrad Burns. "He owes our troops and their families an apology."
North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Meek said Democrats should "absolutely disassociate ourselves from any criticism of our troops, misunderstood or otherwise."
Tennessee Senate hopeful Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who received a campaign visit Wednesday from former President Bill Clinton, was first to come forward and lead the Democratic call for Kerry to apologize.
"Whatever the intent, Senator Kerry was wrong to say what he said," Ford told reporters. "He needs to apologize to our troops."
Avoiding the GOP 'Hate Machine'
Ford, who is locked in a heated battle with Republican Bob Corker, spoke as GOP candidates across the country borrowed a page from the Democratic political playbook — linking a candidate to a political gaffe — and called on their opponents to take a public stand on Kerry's comments.
"Senator Cantwell is Senator Kerry's host in our state," read a press release from Mike McGavick, the Republican challenger to incumbent Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell. "She has evaded comment time and time again in this campaign. Not this time. Senator Cantwell owes Washington's veterans and soldiers an explanation. She has taken Senator Kerry's money. Does she also accept his comments?"
• Check Your State, Check Your Race by clicking BALANCE OF POWER dropdown menu above.
Pennsylvania incumbent Republican Rep. Curt Weldon is in a fight with Democrat Joe Sestak.
"Joe Sestak has closely allied himself with John Kerry throughout this campaign,” Mike Puppio, chairman of Weldon’s re-election campaign, said of the retired admiral who is ahead of Weldon in the polls. “The question now is whether Sestak will publicly condemn the insensitive and wildly off base comments by Kerry that belittle and denigrate our men and women in the military. ... Joe Sestak should call on his friend John Kerry to apologize."
Republicans are hoping the Kerry elixir will perform the same magic it did in 2004, when the senator ran a failed campaign for president, and stirred the conservative base to go to the polls.
"He was for the joke before he was against it," Vice President Dick Cheney will tell voters at a campaign appearance in Montana Wednesday night. The comment is a take-off of a blunder Kerry made in the presidential election, when he was mocked for articulating his votes on Iraq war funding by saying, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”
Kerry appears to have made the decision to lay low for the time being.
"Now, I'm coming back to Washington today so that I'm not a distraction, because I don't want to be a distraction to these campaigns," Kerry told radio commentator Don Imus Wednesday morning. "And the point is simply: (The Bush administration owes) America an apology for this disaster in Iraq. And I hope they're going to provide it."
Kerry also acknowledged that he flubbed his script.
"I said it was a botched joke. Of course, I'm sorry about a botched joke. You think I love botched jokes? I mean, it's pretty stupid," he told Imus.
He also won't make scheduled stops in Minnesota or Pennsylvania because he said he doesn't want to harm a Democratic candidate's chance for victory. In Iowa, a spokesman for Democratic congressional candidate Bruce Braley said Braley had decided independently to cancel an event with Kerry scheduled for Thursday.
"I'm not going to go to some place that a congressman's going to get embroiled in this, because I want them to win," Kerry said.
Kerry spokesman David Wade issued a statement Wednesday morning, further explaining the cancellations.
"We made a decision not to allow the Republican hate machine to use Democratic House candidates as proxies in their distorted spin war in which once again they're willing to exploit brave American troops — so yes we've canceled campaign events in Pennsylvania today as well as for House candidates in Minnesota and Iowa today and tomorrow — but we're staying at the fight to hold Bush accountable on Iraq — as he did this morning on [Don] Imus," Wade said.
Snow said earlier that Kerry's canceled campaign appearances show that Democratic candidates understand what's at stake.
"I think both guys understand that in a political season, people make political decisions," Snow told CBS.
Speaking Wednesday to radio talk host Rush Limbaugh — who also was the subject of Kerry's wrath on Tuesday — the president, notorious for his verbal gaffes, said: "Anybody who is in a position to serve this country ought to understand the consequences of words. And our troops deserve the full support of people in government. People here may not agree with my decision, I understand that. But what I don't understand is any diminution of their sacrifice."
A defiant Kerry said he has no intention of apologizing because his remarks were aimed not at the soldiers and sailors, but at Bush, Cheney and the administration as a whole.
"As a combat veteran, I know the dedication, integrity, and commitment of American troops. I've lived it. Had George Bush and Dick Cheney been in combat one minute of their comfortable lives they would never have sent American troops to war without body armor or without a plan to win the peace and they wouldn't be exploiting our troops today," Kerry said in a statement after the president spoke.
"George Bush didn't do his homework when he ran from sound intelligence about Iraq. ... George Bush didn't do his homework when he ignored General Shinseki's advice to go to war with enough troops to maintain order. This entire administration didn't learn anything about telling the truth; otherwise they would have leveled with the American people that we are stuck in a civil war in Iraq today," he continued.
Speaking to reporters in Seattle, Wash., earlier in the day, Kerry used exceptional language to describe Republicans.
"I'm sick and tired of a bunch of despicable Republicans who will not debate real policy, who won't take responsibility for their own mistakes, standing up and trying to make other people the butt of those mistakes," Kerry said. "It disgusts me that a bunch of these Republican hacks who've never worn the uniform of our country are willing to lie about those who did. It's over."
The Military Responds
Kerry's words drew both surprise and pointed responses from military quarters.
"Most people I talked to were astonished" by what they heard Kerry say, said Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel Readiness David Chu.
"I do think I take this as a personal challenge to get the word out about the high level of education and ability in our force today. My understanding is he questioned whether our people were graduates of high schools. We have a high-school diploma graduation rate that exceeds the national average. My job is to make sure everybody in the country understands that most especially members of our elected legislature," Chu said.
On Wednesday, the Department of Defense released education level rates for enlisted forces and officers. In the four branches of the Armed Forces, 97.5 percent of commissioned officers graduated college. Of warranted officers, 28. 6 percent graduated college and 82.9 percent of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps completed some college. The U.S. Air Force does not have warranted officers. Among the enlisted servicemen, 99 percent graduated high school, and 11.4 percent completed some college.
"This is deja vu all over again," said retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Burton Moore, calling Kerry's remarks typical of the "liberal elitist attitude towards our men and women who are serving, many of whom are college graduates."
"If you recall back in the Vietnam War how he likened the troops to raping and pillaging across Vietnam like Genghis Khan. I think it must be something that must be within his own psyche and only he can answer that, but it angers all of us out here to hear it," Moore said.
Elected Republican military veterans also made clear they were not appreciative of the Kerry's comments.
"The Armed Forces of 2006 are made up of the brightest, most dedicated young men and women to ever serve our nation. They understand that terrorism has to be fought, not appeased. These comments are beneath Senator Kerry," added Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is still an Air Force Reserves attorney.
"Some (U.S. troops) have high school diplomas, some have graduate degrees, but they are all serving. I am grateful for them, and to somehow suggest that only those lacking academic credentials are the ones who serving is an insult to every one of those young people, young and old, in what I believe is a noble cause," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told FOX News. McCain, a decorated Vietnam veteran, is a potential presidential rival to Kerry in 2008.
"We're not talking about fellow politicians. I can take anything that's thrown at me, I am a tough guy," McCain said, adding he would accept an apology if Kerry made one. "This particular comment is so harmful to these brave young people. ... They are the very best of America, let's never forget that."
Kerry fired back, telling the former Vietnam prisoner of war that he "ought to ask for an apology from (Defense Secretary) Donald Rumsfeld for making the mistakes he's made. John McCain ought to ask for an apology from this administration for not sending enough troops."
Democrats have several military veterans in the congressional midterm election. They are counting on their experience to increase the credibility of their criticism about the way the Iraq war has been conducted. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark suggested Kerry's remarks are not helpful to Democrats trying to take back the House and Senate.
But former Georgia Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, another combat veteran who lost three limbs in Vietnam, said Kerry is speaking on behalf of millions of fed-up Americans.
"I think people will remember John Kerry's press conference today as the moment we Democrats stopped once and forever accepting the disgraceful smears of Republicans. John Kerry showed our party how to fight back with the truth," Cleland said.
"John Kerry is a patriot who has fought tooth and nail for veterans ever since he came home from Vietnam. He has stood with his brothers in arms unlike this administration, which exploits our troops to make a political point and divide America," he added.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi added that Republicans are trying to exploit the troops by deliberately misinterpreting Kerry.
"President Bush, who has failed our troops in Iraq in so many ways, should at least have the decency not to use them in a desperate attempt to rescue his rubber stamp Republican Congress," Pelosi, D-Calif., said.
Some political analysts said Kerry's reactions to calls for an apology make clear he is still stinging from 2004 Swift Boat Veteran ads that accused the senator of turning on his comrades.
"He thinks if he had reacted more vigorously he'd be president of the United States today," said conservative columnist Robert Novak. "I don't think that's true but John Kerry thinks it's true and therefore there is this almost hysterical mode where he repeats himself over and over and over again in the press conference."
Moore said if Kerry is thinking of running again in 2008, he can't believe he would deliberately insult the men and women in Iraq. But he said Kerry can't take his words back.
"He wasn't at a military base. He wasn't at an Army recruiting center. He was talking to some young people and he was saying that if you study hard you are not going to have to wind up being a soldier, a sailor, an airman, a Marine defending your country, which while he'd likes to take great credit for being a great war hero, I think I side with the Swift Boat people that Senator Kerry has a lot still to answer about for his Vietnam service," Moore said.
McCain added that he didn't know if the comments would impact the election.
"I know that the American people value and revere our military people more than any other institution, as they should. How this affects them, I'm not clear. It certainly can't be beneficial to the Democrat cause, but I don't know."