Kerry's 'Botched' Joke Backfires

John Kerry over US Army soldier on patrol in Baghdad
AP / CBS
A week to go, and Campaign 2006 has a new major battleground: Did Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., insult the troops in Iraq?

The war of words started when Kerry was talking to a group of students about education, reports CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante.

"If you make the most of it and you study hard and 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," Kerry said.

Kerry says he was talking about the president, but that he botched the joke. No way, said Mr. Bush at a campaign rally in Georgia. He accused the senator of a snide slam at the troops.

"The senator's suggestion that the men and women of our military are somehow uneducated is insulting and shameful," the president said. "The members of the U.S. military are plenty smart and plenty brave and the senator from Massachusetts owes them an apology."


Public Eye: How Much Press For Kerry's Gaffe?
"I apologize to no one for my criticism of the president and of his broken policy," replied Kerry.

A few Democratic candidates joined Republicans Wednesday in pressing Kerry to apologize.

"Whatever the intent, Senator Kerry was wrong to say what he said," said Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr., running for Senate in Tennessee.

"Sen. Kerry's remarks were poorly worded and just plain stupid," said Montana Senate President Jon Tester, a Democrat trying to unseat GOP Sen. Conrad Burns. "He owes our troops and their families an apology."

Kerry, a decorated war veteran who may run again for president, is not running for reelection. He was hurt in 2004 when he failed to respond to accusations about his military service. He vowed that wouldn't happen again.

"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. That is a lesson I learned deep and hard," the senator said.

For Republicans, it's a chance to change the subject, reports Plante, and it's a good bet this will come up again later Wednesday when the president talks to conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

"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.

Democrats want these last few days before the midterm election to focus on the war and the president, to keep the president as the central issue, reports Plante.

A Kerry spokeswoman, Amy Brundage, said Kerry's prepared text had called for him to say: "Do you know where you end up if you don't study, if you aren't smart, if you're intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush."

That, Kerry said, was meant as a reference to Mr. 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.

"He may have botched the line but what he said was insulting to the troops," White House press secretary Tony Snow said on CBS News' The Early Show. "What he ought to say is, 'Look, I botched the line, but I'm sorry for giving offense.'"

Meanwhile, Democratic Congressional candidate Bruce Braley has canceled a campaign event scheduled later this week with Kerry, saying that the senator's recent comments about the Iraq war were inappropriate.

Braley is running against Republican Mike Whalen in Iowa's 1st District congressional race to replace Rep. Jim Nussle, a Republican — a contest considered to be one of the most competitive House races in the country. Braley's appearance with Kerry, the Democrats nominee for president in 2004, was scheduled for Thursday.

In Minnesota, Meredith Salsbery, a spokeswoman for Tim Walz, the Democratic candidate in the 1st congressional district, said Kerry canceled an appearance with Walz slated for Wednesday in Mankato, Minnesota. "He wants to make sure the campaign is about the issues we've been talking about the last two years," she said. "It's important to him that we are able to do that."

"There's no question that the Democrats have been trying to make this whole election about George Bush and about Iraq," says CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer. "So many of these Democrats are trying to link their opponents to the president."

"The Democrats think they have a winning issue here and going directly against the president and against this war. And the Republicans, obviously, are trying to change that subject," Schieffer added

Some Republicans have been trying to distance themselves from President Bush and the war in Iraq.

"Every poll that you look at tells you that people are unhappy about the war, they don't think what is happening in Iraq is working and they are upset about it and they think the country is headed in the wrong direction, not just in Iraq but in other places, as well," reports Schieffer.

In New Jersey, Senate candidate Tom Kean, Jr., is running ads calling for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

"The president vetoed the stem cell bill and I voted to override his veto because it was the right thing to do," says incumbent Heather Wilson in a campaign ad that never mentions she is a Republican.

"If they are not running away, they are at least trying to put distance between themselves and the president," says Schieffer.

But Snow said he is not aware of any candidates who have canceled appearances with Mr. Bush.

"The president is going to a number of closely contested districts," Snow told Early Show co-anchor Hannah Storm. "This is a president who knows he can be a game-changer and will be in a number of races. More importantly, he can reinforce the message."