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Bush on Kerry remark: U.S. troops are 'plenty smart'

Story Highlights

• Bush calls Kerry remark "insulting and shameful"
• John Kerry says statement was "botched joke" aimed at President Bush
• GOP slams Kerry for telling students to study or "get stuck in Iraq"
• Sen. John McCain calls remark an insult to "every soldier serving in combat"
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush joined GOP lawmakers Tuesday in blasting Sen. John Kerry for telling a group of college students they could either work hard in school or "get stuck in Iraq."

"Even in the midst of a heated campaign season, there are still some things we should all be able to agree on, and one of the most important is that every one of our troops deserves our gratitude and respect," Bush said.

Kerry told reporters in Seattle, Washington, that the remark was a "botched joke" meant to target the president, not U.S. troops.

Bush added that U.S. troops deserve the full support of the government. (Watch Kerry say he won't apologize for criticizing the president and "his broken policy" -- 9:33 Video)

"The senator's suggestion that the men and women of our military are somehow uneducated is insulting and shameful," Bush said. "The men and women who serve in our all-volunteer armed forces are plenty smart and are serving because they are patriots -- and Senator Kerry owes them an apology."

Republicans unleashed a firestorm of criticism against Kerry after the Vietnam veteran's remarks on Monday, but Kerry said Tuesday that he made a mistake.

"The White House's attempt to distort my true statement is a remarkable testament to their abject failure in making America safe," the Massachusetts senator said. "It's a stunning statement about their willingness to reduce anything in America to raw politics." (Watch a recap of the day's war of words -- 3:02 Video)

Kerry's comment did not sit well even with leading members of his own party. A number of top Democrats told CNN they were upset with the senator for giving the Republicans election-time ammunition -- even if the GOP was hyping the remark.

"He has already cost us one election. The guy just needs to keep his mouth shut until after the election," a top Democratic strategist said Tuesday. (Watch how Kerry's gaffe may be a gift for the GOP -- 3:00 Video)

But not all Democrats concurred. Vietnam veteran and former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia defended Kerry and applauded the senator for showing "our party how to fight back with the truth."

"John Kerry is a patriot who has fought tooth and nail for veterans ever since he came home from Vietnam. He has stood with his brothers in arms unlike this administration, which exploits our troops to make a political point and divide America," Cleland said in a statment.

Before Kerry's clarification, White House press secretary Tony Snow, House Majority Leader John Boehner and Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, lambasted the four-term senator and demanded he apologize. (Watch Kerry's "botched joke'" that launched the political stink -- 1:50 Video)

A CNN poll suggests that Iraq is the second-most important issue, behind the economy, as voters ponder for whom to cast their ballots in next week's midterms.

White House: 'An absolute insult'

"This is an absolute insult," Snow said at a daily press briefing. "Senator Kerry not only owes an apology to those who are serving, but also to the families of those who've given their lives in this."

Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said the remark was "insulting" and called on "Democrat candidates across the country" to publicly denounce the comment.

"These Americans who are risking their lives in the fight against terrorism in Iraq deserve better than to have their service demeaned by a United States senator," Boehner said in a statement. "Our soldiers need John Kerry's support, yet John Kerry offers nothing more than disparaging commentary."

Kerry, who is not up for re-election this year, fired back at the White House and the GOP, saying he was not disparaging U.S. soldiers.

"If anyone thinks a veteran would criticize the more than 140,000 heroes serving in Iraq and not the president who got us stuck there, they're crazy," he said. "No Democrat will be bullied by an administration that has a cut-and-run policy in Afghanistan and a stand-still-and-lose strategy in Iraq."

Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, spoke to students at Pasadena City College in California on Monday.

According to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the senator took the stage to roaring applause before regaling the crowd with one-liners, Bush barbs and tales of surfing at nearby Mission Beach.

He then said: "You know, education -- if you make the most of it, 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."

Comment 'mangled in delivery'

A Kerry aide told CNN that the prepared statement, which had been designed to criticize President Bush, "was mangled in delivery."

Kerry was supposed to say, "I can't overstress the importance of a great education. 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."

Before the announcement that the statement was botched, McCain, a Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war, joined his GOP colleagues in condemning the remark and demanding an apology.

"Senator Kerry owes an apology to the many thousands of Americans serving in Iraq, who answered their country's call because they are patriots and not because of any deficiencies in their education," McCain said in a statement.

U.S. troops "deserve our respect and deepest gratitude for their service," he added and said the notion that only those with poor educations serve in the Iraq "is an insult to every soldier serving in combat."

"Without them, we wouldn't live in a country where people securely possess all their God-given rights, including the right to express insensitive, ill-considered and uninformed remarks," McCain said.

But Kerry refused to relent, calling the criticism part of the "classic GOP playbook."

"I'm not going to be lectured by a stuffed-suit White House mouthpiece standing behind a podium, or doughy Rush Limbaugh, who no doubt today will take a break from belittling Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's disease to start lying about me just as they have lied about Iraq."

He further expressed disgust with "Republican hacks, who have never worn the uniform of our country."

Kerry added that President Bush and Vice President Cheney "owe our troops an apology" because they "misled America into war."

Bush and Cheney "have given us a Katrina foreign policy that has betrayed our ideals, killed and maimed our soldiers, and widened the terrorist threat instead of defeating it," the senator said.


Sen. John Kerry is the subject of fierce criticism after telling college students they'd get "stuck in Iraq" if they didn't study hard.


• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide
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