The war of words, tough even for this hard-fought campaign season, came after Kerry told a group of California students on Monday that those unable to navigate the country's education system "get stuck in Iraq."
The two parties are searching for any edge amid indications Democrats could take back the House and possibly win control of the Senate. One week from Election Day 2006 and suddenly it's back to the future, with Kerry and President Bush at front and center of politics — only this time, neither is running for office, CBS News chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod reports.
Though neither President Bush nor Kerry is on any ballot, the bitterness with which they fought each other as 2004 rivals spilled over as both campaign hard for their parties in a race shaped in large measure by public doubts about the Iraq war.
President Bush, campaigning in Georgia, said Kerry's statement was "insulting and it is 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,"
Kerry, who is for the White House in 2008, angrily fired back. His statement called Republicans "assorted right-wing nut jobs."
And at a hastily arranged news conference in Seattle, Kerry said: "I apologize to no one for my criticism of the president and of his broken policy."
White House press secretary Tony Snow was asked about Kerry's comment at his regular briefing with reporters, and had clearly come prepared with
Kerry said the comment in question was "a botched joke about the president and the president's people, not about the troops ... and they know that's what I was talking about."
It came during a campaign rally for California Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides. Kerry opened his speech at Pasadena City College with several one-liners, saying at one point that Mr. Bush had lived in Texas but now "lives in a state of denial."
He then said: "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. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."
That, Kerry said, was meant as a reference to President Bush, not troops. Kerry said it is the president who owes U.S. soldiers an apology — for "a Katrina foreign policy" that misled the country into war in Iraq, failed to adequately study and plan for the aftermath, has not properly equipped troops and has expanded the terrorist threat.
The Massachusetts Democrat called the White House attack "a classic GOP textbook Republican campaign tactic" that reveals Republicans' "willingness to reduce anything in America to raw politics."
"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," he 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."
Unsubstantiated allegations about Kerry's Vietnam War heroism from a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in the 2004 Kerry-Bush race. Even Kerry has blamed his slow and uncertain response to the group's claims for helping to doom his White House chances, and Democrats viewed the Tuesday fracas as a test of that lesson.
"Enough is enough. We're not going to stand for this," Kerry said. "We are going to stay in their face with the truth."
And Tuesday Kerry signaled Republicans wouldn't "swift boat him" again, Axelrod reports.
"I'm not going to give them one ounce of daylight to spread one of their lies and to play this game ever, ever again," he said. "That is a lesson I learned deep and hard."
On the CBS Evening News, Nicole Wallace, former communications director for the Bush Administration, told Katie Couric that Republicans would be glad to see Kerry on the news every day until Election Day.
"He embodies everything Democrats are trying to erase about what voters think about them and national security," Wallace said.
Former Bill Clinton Spokesman Mike McCurry told Couric that Democrats are not embarrassed about Kerry's botched joke, or his criticism of the Bush Administration.
"By this time tomorrow night, people won't remember what John Kerry said," McCurry said. "Iraq in the news is not a bad thing for Democrats."
Some Republicans, sensing opportunity for their side, piled on throughout the day with their own demands for an apology from Kerry.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is like Kerry a decorated Vietnam veteran and a potential 2008 rival,
Added House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., struggling to keep his party in control of Congress: "Our soldiers risk their lives in the face of grave dangers on the battlefield, and no one who chooses to courageously and selflessly defend our country can be considered 'uneducated.' "
Separately, the White House issued President Bush's Veterans' Day proclamation praising those who have served in the armed forces — a week and a half before the holiday.