Six days before nationwide elections, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee said he sincerely regretted that his words were "misinterpreted to imply anything negative about those in uniform."
In a brief statement, Kerry, a Vietnam war veteran, attacked President George W. Bush for a "failed security policy." Yet his apology, issued after prominent Democrats had urged him to cancel public appearances, was designed to quell a controversy that party leaders feared would stall their drive for big gains on Nov. 7.
Kerry, who is not up for re-election, beat a gradual retreat from the national campaign spotlight. Earlier in the day, appearing on a radio program, he said he was "sorry about a botched joke" about Bush. He heaped praise on the troops, adamantly accused Republicans of twisting his words and said it was Bush and his aides who "owe America an apology for this disaster in Iraq."
Democrats cringed, though, at the prospect of Kerry becoming the face of the party for the second consecutive national campaign. "No one wants to have the 2004 election replayed," said Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
A congressional candidate in Iowa said swiftly he no longer wanted him to appear at a scheduled rally. Kerry abandoned plans to attend events in Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
CBS News chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod reports that a Republican campaign official told CBS that "John Kerry has given us what Democrats have had for months: an evil boogeyman. We spent $200 million last election getting people to hate John Kerry. Now we just tap right back into that."
"Whatever the intent, Senator Kerry was wrong to say what he said. He needs to apologize to our troops," said Democratic Congressman Harold Ford Jr., locked in a close Senate race in Tennessee.
"It was a real dumb thing to say. He should say sorry," added Claire McCaskill, the Democrat in an equally tight Senate campaign in Missouri.
The White House accepted Kerry's statement as a legitimate apology.
"Senator Kerry's apology to the troops for his insulting comments came late but it was the right thing to do," White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said.
She said it was too soon to say whether the White House would now stop noting the controversy. "We'll see," Perino said. "Once he has apologized, I don't know that there is anything more to say."
Moments after Kerry issued his statement, House Majority Leader John Boehner, the No. 2 Republican in the House, said, "I think he has apologized. It sounds good enough." He spoke on CNN.
For Republicans, it's a chance to change the subject, reports CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante.
"The president always sets up a straw man because he won't debate a real man," Kerry snapped in an interview with columnist Joel Connelly of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.