WASHINGTON – The White House is saying "good enough" to Sen. John Kerry's apology to U.S. troops for a "poorly stated joke," but Republicans appear not ready to let the Massachusetts Democrat off the hook for suggesting a lack of education got American soldiers "stuck in Iraq."
"Yes, the apology's good enough," White House spokesman Tony Snow told FOX News' Bill O'Reilly Wednesday night.
Other Republicans, however, say Kerry's off-script gaffe is a clear demonstration of the Democratic Party's disdain for the military and "blame America first" mentality.
"John Kerry, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the 'blame America first' crowd, they want to blame Iraq on the president, (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld and everyone else," said House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, referring to his Democratic colleagues in the House and Senate. "Why don't we blame it on the terrorists, the people who killed 2,000 people here in New York? Let's not blame it on everybody else.
"Let's blame the terrorists for the problems that we have. ... They want to blame America for the terrorists coming here and attacking our country. We have no choice but to take on these terrorists to defeat them," Boehner said.
"I spent three weeks in the Florida recount by Hillary Clinton's good friend Al Gore who wanted to be president. How? By suppressing the vote of the overseas military serving this country," said Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind. "So the Democrat elite have a record here of not supporting our military, and they sure did not like that exposed five days before an election."
Vice President Dick Cheney also was not about to let Kerry's remark and subsequent Web-only apology for a "bad joke" go quietly into the night.
"You remember John Kerry — the senator who voted for the $87 billion before he voted against it, the guy that was always lecturing us about 'nuance.' He's the one, you'll recall, who last year said that American soldiers were terrorizing children in Iraq," Cheney said at a campaign event in Montana Wednesday night.
"Of course, Senator Kerry said he was just making a joke, and he botched it up. I guess we didn't get the nuance. Actually, he was for the joke before he was against it," Cheney said.
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Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said he tips his hat to Kerry for his service in the military, but argued Kerry has a history of making comments "that outraged his comrades in the military and has outraged members of the military from time to time ever since."
"I am critical of his constant belittlement of military involvement on the part of our troops. Time and again, he's said things that have been critical of our fighting men and women. It's a huge mistake. It misses the mark," Romney told FOX News.
After a defiant two days of refusing to apologize to anyone, Kerry, who took refuge in his Washington, D.C., home Wednesday after being yanked off the campaign trail, said he regretted that his words "were misinterpreted."
"As a combat veteran, I want to make it clear to anyone in uniform and to their loved ones: my poorly stated joke at a rally was not about, and never intended to refer to any troop," Kerry said in a statement published on his Web site.
"I sincerely regret that my words were misinterpreted to wrongly imply anything negative about those in uniform, and I personally apologize to any service member, family member, or American who was offended," he added.
The White House reacted quickly to Kerry's apology, issuing the following statement:
"Senator Kerry's apology to the troops for his insulting comment came late but was the right thing to do. Our military is the best and the brightest — the most courageous and professional of any military in the world. President Bush is honored to be their commander-in-chief."
Snow later said troops have been hearing "a mixed message coming out of Washington in this political year."
"The one thing they deserve to know is that we're 100 percent behind them, and not simply saying, 'yes, we're with you, we like you,' but that you need to be able to conclude the mission successfully with the support of the American people," Snow told O'Reilly.
The administration is "happy to talk about security policy with Democrats who, like Senator Kerry, have decided what they're going to do is load up a bunch of mud balls and try to make the president unpopular rather than giving us their own plans for victory in Iraq or on the broader War on Terror," Snow said.
Kerry touched off a political firestorm on Monday at a campaign appearance in California in which he told students at Pasadena City College that 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.
On Tuesday, Kerry refused to address the troops, instead referring to "despicable Republicans" who "are afraid to stand up and debate a real veteran on this topic. And they're afraid to debate — you know, they want to debate straw men because they're afraid to debate real men."
Kerry said "no Democrat is going to be bullied by these people."
Kerry's Web site apology included another salvo aimed at the GOP, in which he claims the "stuck in Iraq" remark was used to divert the midterm election debate away from the Bush administration's Iraq policy.
"It is clear the Republican Party would rather talk about anything but their failed security policy. I don't want my verbal slip to be a diversion from the real issues. I will continue to fight for a change of course to provide real security for our country, and a winning strategy for our troops," he said.
A chorus of Democrats criticized the senator for the apparent insult to the troops, but Tennessee Senate candidate Harold Ford said his apology should be accepted on its face.
"I'm a Christian and I think everybody deserves a second chance," said Ford, who is running in a tight race against Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker. "I take a person at their word. When Vice President Cheney mistakenly shot his friend when they were out hunting, he said he was sorry, didn't mean to do it, and I believed him. If John Kerry says it was an awful attempt at a joke then I take him at his word."
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., added that suggestions Democrats just want to roll over on fighting the War on Terror are wrong.
"I think we have to, through every means possible, persuade, cajole, convince the Maliki government (in Iraq) that their best interest, for themselves as well as for this coalition, is to be strong against these militias, not flip-flop and weaken, say one thing one day and then revoke it the next day," Reed said. "I think that's example of how the policy's not working there."
Others Democrats said they agree with Kerry's attacks on the Bush administration and its execution of the Iraq war.
"It's time for the president and vice president to start leveling with the American people, and stop attacking brave veterans like John Kerry who have dared to question the White House's flawed decision to stay the course in Iraq. Every day they attack Democrats instead of reaching out to find a new way forward is another day our security suffers and our troops go without the political leadership they need to succeed," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said.
"Last week, President Bush said that the U.S. was winning in Iraq. However, according to media reports, the U.S. Central Command judges the situation in Iraq to be near chaos, with 'violence at all-time high, spreading geographically.' That President Bush sees increasing violence as 'winning' is further evidence of how far out of touch he is with what is actually happening on the ground in Iraq," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
Kerry has not had unequivocal support from Democrats on his view of Iraq. Earlier this year, he sponsored a resolution for troops to withdraw by year's end. Support was limited. Republicans now say Kerry's views and his legislative remedies are evident of a Democratic Party with no policy proscriptions of its own.
"The bigger issue here is the policy in Iraq and the determination of our troops to win. Now all the Democrats want to do is give up in Iraq and pull the troops out. We cannot afford to do that," Boehner said.
Republicans are hoping Kerry will stir the conservative base to go to the polls. The National Republican Senatorial Committee called on Democrats in tight races defend or denounce the remarks and demanded that any Democrat who denounces Kerry return funds Kerry donated to their campaigns.
GOP operatives say the latest event don't guarantee victory on Election Day. They know the odds are still against holding the House and only slightly favor them holding the Senate. What they do know is that the Kerry flap has knocked Democrats off message for at least two days and that's given them hope of clawing their way to victory in some tight races and possibly padding leads in close races where Republicans held a slight edge.
But Republicans running non-traditional races aren't touching the debate. In Maryland, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele is ignoring it, sticking with his game plan of running on local issues and courting the black vote. Mike Bouchard in Michigan is also trying to run as an outsider and with his own themes and tactics, and so is conspicuously ignoring the party playbook on Kerry in hopes that it reinforces their authenticity and independence from cookie-cutter GOP tactics.