Ever since he came within 118,000 Ohio votes of winning the presidency, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts 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 him make a comeback in 2008.
But with one “poorly stated joke” this week in Pasadena, Kerry not only sapped momentum from his party in the final week of a competitive election, he dealt a blow to his own White House aspirations.
Under pressure from many Democrats, Kerry issued an apology late Wednesday, two days after telling college students that without an education, “you get stuck in Iraq.” In a written statement, Kerry lamented that his words were “misinterpreted to wrongly imply anything negative about those in uniform” and said: “I personally apologize to any service member, family member, or American who was offended.”
“As a combat veteran, I want to make it clear to anyone in uniform and to their loved ones: My poorly stated joke at a rally was not about, and never intended to refer to, any troop,” Kerry said.
He concluded the statement: “It is clear the Republican Party would rather talk about anything but their failed security policy. I don’t want my verbal slip to be a diversion from the real issues. I will continue to fight for a change of course to provide real security for our country, and a winning strategy for our troops.”
Earlier in the day on Don Imus’ radio show, Kerry said, “Everybody knows that I botched a joke,” explaining that he had been trying to say that President Bush had not done his homework and therefore “got us stuck in Iraq.” But for a politician striving to prove that he had become a better candidate than he was when GOP attacks helped to derail his White House campaign in 2004, the damage was done.
It could hardly have come at a worse time for Kerry, who has been rebuilding his national campaign structure and hoping to capitalize on the goodwill he amassed by raising more than $12 million for 2006 candidates and campaigning in 35 states. With the recent decision by former Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner not to run for president, Kerry was hoping to position himself as the top challenger to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for the party’s nomination.
Democrats worry Kerry’s words have made party candidates vulnerable to accusations of insensitivity toward troops in the final week of a campaign in which Democrats seemed to be benefiting from voters’ unhappiness with the Iraq war.
Moreover, the flap allowed the GOP to remind voters why they chose Bush in 2004 over a Democrat who was portrayed as a flip-flopper. It was enough to make some wish that Kerry would just go away for a while.
“Nothing against John Kerry, but this election is not about John Kerry,” said Gordon Fischer, former Democratic Party chairman in Iowa, where one congressional candidate canceled an appearance with Kerry.
Fischer, whose home state caucuses play a key role in choosing a presidential nominee, said Kerry’s gaffe would undoubtedly hurt his chances in two years -- a sentiment echoed Wednesday by several other Democrats.
Burton Cohen, former New Hampshire state Senate majority leader and a key Kerry backer in 2004, said the botched joke could rival former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s famous Iowa scream in terms of media exposure and political damage.
“It’s getting played over and over again,” Cohen said. “You just need one instance that can define a campaign. This may be one of those things, and if that’s the case, I hope John Kerry likes staying in the Senate.”
Kerry canceled appearances in Minnesota and Pennsylvania, as well as a weekend stop in New Hampshire, home of the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.
“I don’t want to be a distraction to these campaigns,” Kerry told Imus after calling the show Wednesday to criticize the White House for “disgraceful” tactics.
Republicans were delighted to make Kerry a central theme of the campaign’s closing days. Conservatives moved quickly to spotlight the controversy in order to further mobilize the voters who could help the GOP retain majorities in Congress.
The Drudge Report, the conservative website that first posted audio and video of Kerry’s original comments, promoted the story all day Wednesday, listing Democrats who were disinviting Kerry and displaying a photograph depicting troops in Iraq with a sign that said they were stuck “hear in Irak.”
The Republican National Committee helped fan the flames, distributing talking points to radio hosts and bloggers. Bush; Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne; and White House Press Secretary Tony Snow also addressed the senator’s remarks.
Bush, who Tuesday called Kerry’s words “shameful,” reiterated criticism Wednesday during interviews with conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh and the Associated Press.
“It didn’t sound like a joke to me,” Bush told the AP. “More important, it didn’t sound like a joke to the troops.”
Democrats joined the GOP’s demands that the Massachusetts senator apologize.
Clinton called his remarks “inappropriate”; Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., who is in a tight Senate race in Tennessee, told MSNBC that the comment “offended some people” and that Kerry should apologize and let everyone “move on.” Larry Grant, an Idaho congressional candidate, welcomed Kerry’s apology but added: “He shouldn’t have tried to make a joke about it in the first place.”
Kerry’s contrition followed two days in which he tried to fight back, ridiculing Snow at one point as a “stuffed suit” and noting that his White House critics had not served in the military. Kerry appeared to be exorcising the ghosts of 2004, when even he acknowledged he did not fight back in time against a group of pro-Bush veterans who accused Kerry of misrepresenting his record as a Vietnam War hero.
“This is Swift-boat stuff all over again,” he told Imus. “The controversy is based on a lie.”
Democrats worried he was only making matters worse.
“He was applying the Swift-boat lessons of 2004 to the wrong set of facts in 2006,” said party strategist Chris Lehane, who once worked for Kerry. “He’s not on the ballot this time.”
To Kerry supporters, the episode has been frustrating.
“There isn’t a soul in America that is either being quoted or privately talking to the press that honestly believes that John Kerry was insulting the troops of this country,” said Kirk Wagar, a Miami lawyer and top fundraiser for Kerry’s 2004 campaign. “Anybody who questions that out loud is doing nothing but parroting a Republican talking-point lie that they’re trying to use to change the subject.”
There was some evidence of a possible silver lining for Kerry, with increasingly influential liberal bloggers defending him and bashing the media for enabling the GOP spin machine.
David Wade, a Kerry spokesman, predicted that Democrats would “respect someone who fights like hell against a broken policy in Iraq and has the guts to offer a real change in course that honors our troops.”
To find success in 2008, though, Kerry will need to overcome sentiments like those expressed by Imus, who echoed the feelings of many Democrats when he told the senator repeatedly Wednesday: “Stop it. Stop talking. Go home.... You’re going to ruin this.”
Times staff writers Maura Reynolds and James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.