Kerry Rails at Bush for 2003 Claim on Iraq

Times Staff Writers

Sen. John F. Kerry said Sunday it was “unbelievable” that President Bush would express no regrets over his speech aboard an aircraft carrier more than a year ago during which he said, “The United States and our allies have prevailed” in Iraq.

The Democratic presidential nominee was referring to a taped interview with Bush set to air on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” beginning today. Bush was asked by host Bill O’Reilly whether, given what he knows now, he still would have donned a flight suit, flown aboard the Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego and given his speech in May 2003.

“Absolutely,” Bush responded, according to excerpts obtained by Reuters news service.

Bush gave his nationally televised speech against the backdrop of a banner reading, “Mission Accomplished.” Although he did not use that phrase in his address, he exuded a sense of triumph in remarks that came after the U.S.-led coalition had captured Baghdad and ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with surprising ease.


At the time, less than 150 U.S. troops had died in Iraq. But in the 16 months since, the death toll has climbed steadily, surpassing 1,000 amid an increasingly bloody insurgency. And “Mission Accomplished” has become a stock phrase in Kerry’s stump speech deriding Bush as out of touch.

On Sunday, Kerry said, “It is unbelievable that just this morning, we learned that the president has said that he would do it all over again, dress up in a flight suit and land on an aircraft carrier and say, ‘Mission Accomplished’ again.”

“We will find the terrorists. We will make America safer,” he added. “But I will never be a president who just says, ‘Mission Accomplished.’ I will get the mission accomplished.”

Kerry was addressing supporters at an airport in Madison, Wis., where his campaign plane touched down en route to a nearby resort, where the candidate and senior advisors will prepare for the first of his three debates with Bush.

The two will square off Thursday at 6 p.m. PDT in Coral Gables, Fla., for a debate that is to focus on foreign policy.

In his words Sunday, Kerry continued what has become his campaign’s dominant theme: that Bush erred in launching the invasion of Iraq and that the conflict there has proved a diversion from the war on terrorism.

His remarks also foreshadowed his likely line of attack in Thursday’s encounter.

A spokesman for Bush, Steve Schmidt, said Sunday that Kerry’s rhetoric was “defeatist.”


He added: “For the brave men and women aboard the aircraft carrier, their mission was accomplished and they were returning home. This is another cheap shot by Sen. Kerry, who has taken 10 different positions regarding the war.”

For months, Bush and his allies have charged that Kerry’s stance on the administration’s Iraq policy has continually shifted -- an assertion the president is expected to stress in the debate.

Kerry has disputed the charge, saying his vote two years ago to authorize the use of force against Hussein’s regime was designed to give Bush diplomatic leverage, and the president erred in launching the war.

Kerry strategists hope the candidate can hammer home that point in Thursday’s debate.


In their preparations, Kerry and his aides will study closely Bush’s success during the 2000 debates in painting his Democratic foe, then-Vice President Al Gore, as someone who exaggerated the truth.

“I think what everybody learned in 2000 is that the Bush people went in with a theory ... and no matter what happened, they stuck to that theory,” Kerry’s communications director, Stephanie Cutter, said Sunday. “And they won the spin war.”

Kerry also has a videotape of Bush’s debates in 1994 with then-Texas Gov. Ann Richards during the state’s gubernatorial campaign. Bush, who went on to win the race, performed surprisingly well by sticking to short and direct statements. Richards appeared to speak with less clarity -- a scenario that some Democrats fear Kerry could repeat.

But Kerry’s remarks Sunday -- which lasted only about five minutes but included several hard-hitting jabs at Bush’s leadership in Iraq -- suggested he is learning to sharpen his rhetorical skills.


He will take a break from his debate preparations today to address a town hall meeting at a local school, an effort to improve his position in Wisconsin. The state’s latest polls have shown Bush ahead, though strategists in both camps still view the state as a tossup.

Most of Kerry’s time will be spent with lawyer and longtime friend Gregory Craig, who will be playing the role of Bush during mock debates.

Kerry was joined by his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, Sunday night at the House on the Rock resort about an hour’s drive from Madison.

He also is huddling with strategists Bob Shrum and John Sasso, and former Gore advisor Ron Klain.


Kerry’s first dry run against Craig took place a week ago in his Boston home, Cutter said.

Bush also is studying videotapes -- examining Kerry’s face-offs in his 1996 reelection bid when he fended off a challenge by former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld and developed a national reputation as a top-notch debater.

At his ranch near Crawford, Texas, Bush engaged in two practice sessions over the weekend, with Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) acting as Kerry -- one Saturday night and the other Sunday morning. Both lasted about two hours, aides said.

Mark McKinnon, a longtime Bush friend who designs TV ads for the reelection campaign, served as moderator both times, with Bush and Gregg standing at podiums.


The two sessions adhered closely to the rules that will govern the 90-minute debate, said Dan Bartlett, White House communications director.

“The president is pleased with where he is,” he said.

His job done, Gregg left the ranch Sunday.

By Bartlett’s account, Bush was relaxed. At several points, he delivered joking answers that initially brought senior staffers up short. The aide would not divulge the president’s facetious answers.


Bush is scheduled to campaign today in Ohio, but aides said he might hold additional informal preparations while flying to and from that state.

In Wisconsin, Kerry tried to make up for a recent misstep when he misidentified the home of the Green Bay Packers. On Sunday, he went to a bar where fans were watching the Packers lose on the road to the Indianapolis Colts, buying a round of beers for everyone in the room.