Kerry goof casts shadow

Joke saps party of momentum, dims his '08 odds

November 02, 2006|By Peter Wallsten | Peter Wallsten,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Ever since he came within 120,000 Ohio votes of winning the presidency, Sen. John F. Kerry has refused to give up the idea that he could try again. He kept much of his 2004 finance team together and campaigned aggressively this year for dozens of fellow Democrats who could turn around and help Kerry make a comeback in 2008.

But with one botched joke this week in California, Kerry not only sapped some momentum from his party in the final week of a competitive election but dealt a damaging blow to his own White House aspirations.

Under pressure from many in his own party, Kerry issued an apology late yesterday, two days after appearing to tell college students that if they did not get an education, they will "get stuck in Iraq." He lamented that his words were "misinterpreted to wrongly imply anything negative about those in uniform, and I personally apologize to any service member, family member, or American who was offended."

But for a politician striving to prove that he had become a better candidate than he was when GOP attacks derailed his White House campaign in 2004, the damage was done.

Fellow Democrats worried that Kerry's words made their party's candidates vulnerable to accusations of insensitivity toward the troops in the final week of an election in which Democrats seemed to be benefiting from voters' distaste for the Iraq war.

Moreover, the flap allowed the GOP to remind voters why they chose Bush in 2004 over a Democrat that Republicans portrayed as a flip-flopper.

"Nothing against John Kerry, but this election is not about John Kerry," said Gordon Fischer, chairman of the Democratic Party in Iowa, where one congressional candidate canceled a scheduled appearance this week with the Massachusetts senator.

Kerry canceled other appearances in Minnesota and Pennsylvania, while his office confirmed that he called off an additional stop this weekend in New Hampshire, home of the first-in-the-nation presidential primary and a state that would be crucial for another run at the nomination.

"I don't want to be a distraction to these campaigns," Kerry told radio host Don Imus yesterday morning after calling the show to criticize the White House for "disgraceful" tactics.

Republicans, though, were delighted to make Kerry a central theme of the campaign's closing days, pulling all the levers of the conservative political machine to elevate the controversy to further mobilize the core voters that White House strategists believe could help the GOP retain majorities in Congress.

The Drudge Report, the popular conservative Web site that first posted audio and video of Kerry's original comments, hyped the story all day yesterday, listing Democrats who were canceling Kerry invitations and displaying a photograph depicting troops in Iraq hoisting a sign full of spelling errors claiming they were stuck "hear in Irak."

The Republican National Committee helped fan the flames, distributing talking points to sympathetic radio hosts and bloggers, while Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Lynn Cheney and White House press secretary Tony Snow all addressed the senator's remarks.

Bush, who used a campaign speech Tuesday to call Kerry's words "shameful," reiterated criticism yesterday during interviews with conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh and the Associated Press.

"It didn't sound like a joke to me," Bush said. "More important, it didn't sound like a joke to the troops."

Also yesterday, Bush said he wants Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Cheney to remain with him until the end of his presidency, extending a job guarantee to two of the most vilified members of his administration.

Peter Wallsten writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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