In a speech to the national convention of the American Legion, Mr. Bush said, "We meet today in a time of war for our country, a war we did not start, yet one that we will win.
That statement differed from Mr. Bush's earlier comment, aired Monday in a pre-taped television interview, that "I don't think you can win" the war on terror. That had Democrats running for the cameras to criticize him for being defeatist and flip-flopping from previous predictions of victory.
"What if President Reagan had said that it may be difficult to win the war against communism? What if other presidents had said it'd be difficult to win the war — the Cold War?" Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards said on ABC's "Nightline" program. "The war on terrorism is absolutely winnable."
Mr. Bush's comment — and the ensuing criticism — took attention away from the carefully crafted image of the president being broadcast from the Republican National Convention in New York, as a decisive wartime commander in chief who is securing America's safety and sure of the course on which he has set the nation.
As Mr. Bush continued a pre-convention journey through one closely contested state after another, aides scrambled to clarify the president's remark and contain the story. And in Tuesday's speech before the American Legion, with popular Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona by his side, Mr. Bush himself sought to hit back.
"In this different kind of war, we may never sit down at a peace table," he said. "But make no mistake about it, we are winning and we will win."
Mr. Bush also defended his decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Though no weapons of mass destruction have been found, he said Saddam had the capability to make them.
"Knowing what I know today I would have taken the same action," he said. "America and the world are safer with Saddam Hussein sitting in a prison cell."
Mr. Bush's war on terror remark was the latest in a string of recent comments in which the president seemed to backpedal previous certainties.
In a flurry of interviews timed to coincide with this week's convention, Mr. Bush acknowledged a "miscalculation" about what the United States would encounter in postwar Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime and said the "catastrophic success" of a swift military victory there helped produce the still-potent insurgency.
"First George W. Bush said he miscalculated the war in Iraq, then he called it a catastrophic success and blamed the military," Kerry spokeswoman Allison Dobson said. "Now he says we can't win the war on terror. Is that what (chief Bush political strategist) Karl Rove means when he calls for steady leadership?"
The campaign professed not to be worried that the president had gone off-message.
"The American people have watched the president lead the war on terror decisively for three years," Bush-Cheney spokesman Steve Schmidt said. "The people of this country know what his leadership is."
But Bill Carrick, a California-based Democratic consultant, said the comments — even if they were merely unfortunately phrased expressions of mostly obvious truths — are politically dangerous because they speak to the very heart of the president's re-election pitch.
Carrick saw no hypocrisy in Democrats playing the issue, even though they have cried foul over similar attacks on Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry. For instance, Vice President Dick Cheney criticized Kerry for saying he could fight "a more effective, more thoughtful, more strategic, more proactive, more sensitive war on terror" by singling out for mockery his use of the word "sensitive."
"Turnabout is fair play on this," Carrick said. "Exploit this to the hilt."
Mr. Bush's campaign swing will land him in New York on Wednesday, a day before his convention speech accepting the GOP nomination for a second term. From Nashville, Mr. Bush travels to Alleman, Iowa, to attend a farm show and ends the long day of campaigning in another crucial state, Pennsylvania, where he makes a late-evening appearance at a picnic.
Also Tuesday, Mr. Bush said told NBC that he will continue pursuing diplomatic rather than military options to try to get Iran to halt its nuclear program. Earlier this month, Iran confirmed it had resumed building nuclear centrifuges, which can be used to enrich uranium to weapons grade, and declared it should have the right to advanced nuclear technology.
While he's "deeply concerned" by Iran's actions, Mr. Bush said diplomatic efforts are just beginning there and he's hopeful they will be successful.