In a quick reversal, he now says the war on terror will be won

He makes move to mend rip in image as `resolute'

Election 2004 -- The Republican Convention

September 01, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK -- President Bush tried yesterday to protect his image as a resolute leader, reassuring Americans that the United States and its allies can win the war on terrorism a day after a television interview aired in which he said: "I don't think you can win it."

At an American Legion convention in Nashville on his way to the Republican convention here, Bush promised victory in the war at various points throughout a 25-minute speech, using the word "win" six times.

"We meet today at a time of war for our country, a war we did not start, yet one that we will win," Bush said. He added, "In this different kind of war, we may never sit down at a peace table. But make no mistake about it, we are winning, and we will win. We will win by staying on the offensive. We will win by spreading liberty."

Later, in a live radio interview with conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh from a campaign stop in Iowa, Bush said that in his televised remarks, "what I meant was that it's not a conventional war. ... I probably needed to be more articulate."

In an interview with NBC's Matt Lauer -- taped Saturday and aired Monday -- Bush said he has never said the war on terror could be won over the next four years.

Asked whether it could ever be won, he replied, "I don't think you can win it. But I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world -- let's put it that way."

His seemingly differing assessments, coming within a short time span, quickly exposed him to the same criticism he and other Republicans have directed at his Democratic opponent, John Kerry -- that he flip-flops on issues.

Democrats also seized on Bush's comments to claim that he was conceding failure in the war and that Kerry would be more successful in wiping out terrorism.

A Kerry spokesman, Phil Singer, fired off this response to Bush's speech minutes after it ended: "This president has gone from mission accomplished to mission miscalculated to mission impossible on the war on terror. We need a leader who knows we can win the war on terror and has a plan to do it."

The term "mission miscalculated" refers to a New York Times interview last week in which the president said he made "a miscalculation of what the conditions would be" in postwar Iraq.

Bush and his campaign seemed to believe that letting doubts linger about whether Bush is confident of victory would be gambling with his greatest political strengths, not to mention undercutting the overriding theme of the Republican convention.

Polls show voters trust Bush to fight terrorism more than they favor him on any other issue.

Many Americans see him as a confident, unshakeable leader. And all this week in New York, Republicans are portraying the president as having responded forcefully to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and as the man Americans should rely on to keep the nation safe in coming years.

Rushing to defend the president, Republicans said that his confidence in victory has never been shaken, but that in the NBC interview he was explaining that the campaign against terrorism will last across generations and will never culminate in a traditional treaty ceremony.

Rep. Henry Bonilla, a Texas Republican, said in an interview on the convention floor that Bush was conveying to Lauer that "the war on terror is going to go on more than well into this generation" and that "it's a never-ending battle."

"He's just saying that whoever is president 25 years from now is more than likely going to have to deal with terrorism," Bonilla said.

Bush's remarks in Tennessee came just a day before he arrives in New York, takes up temporary residence at the Waldorf-Astoria and prepares to accept his party's nomination in a primetime address tomorrow.

After speaking, the president will make a late-night flight to Pennsylvania, the swing state he has visited more than any other. After campaigning there Friday, he will set off for Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio, all states where he is running close with Kerry. On Saturday, it's back to Pennsylvania.

Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, said he did not think voicing doubts about winning the campaign against terrorism would turn voters against Bush.

Hess said Bush was clearly saying -- as he has since he launched the war on terror in 2001 -- that "we're not dealing with a state, where we'll go to Paris and sit across a green table from a head of state."

Hess added: "George Bush is an inarticulate speaker, and sometimes you've got to make clear what he meant."

Sun staff writer Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this article.

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