NASHUA, N.H. — President Bush, who had hoped for a triumphant, gaffe-free entrance to the Republican National Convention, instead has spent the past few days giving rhetorical ammunition to Sen. John Kerry.
In an interview aired yesterday on NBC’s “Today” show, Mr. Bush said of the war against terrorism: “I don’t think you can win it.” In other recent interviews, he called Operation Iraqi Freedom a “catastrophic success” and his postwar plan a “miscalculation.”
Mr. Kerry’s campaign has seized on the statements with a zeal not seen since Republicans savaged the Democratic candidate’s call for a “more sensitive war on terror.” The Massachusetts senator forced the White House and the Bush campaign to spend much of yesterday doing damage control.
“The president is a plainspoken man,” shrugged Bush campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel.
Democrats said Mr. Bush’s “I don’t think you can win” remark amounted to the president conceding defeat.
“John Kerry and I believe that this war on terror is winnable; they don’t,” Sen. John Edwards, Mr. Kerry’s running mate, said in Wilmington, N.C., to sustained cheering and applause. “And that’s the difference.”
Mr. Edwards kept up the attack in an interview last night on ABC’s “Nightline,” saying “the war on terrorism is absolutely winnable.”
“What if President Reagan had said that it may be difficult to win the war against communism?” Mr. Edwards said. “I think the truth is that that’s just dead wrong. The president of the United States needs to be strong and resolute in all these things he said — his miscalculation about Iraq, his statement about a catastrophic success.”
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the remark was being misconstrued.
“He was talking about winning the war in the conventional sense,” he told reporters traveling with Mr. Bush in New Hampshire.
“This is an unconventional war with an unconventional enemy,” Mr. McClellan added. “I don’t think there’ll be a formal surrender or a treaty signed.”
Bush aides also were peppered with questions about his remark that Operation Iraqi Freedom was a “catastrophic success.” They suggested the president had picked up the phrase from military commanders, including Gen. Tommy Franks, who ran the ground war before retiring from the Army.
“What he was talking about is writing a war plan and executing a war plan and having the war plan roll out in a different way than anticipated,” White House political strategist Karl Rove told NBC’s Tom Brokaw. “Our military was so powerful and went through so many units so quickly that the [Iraqi] special Republican Guard melted away.”
This allowed the enemy to regroup and eventually re-emerge as an insurgency that has killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers since the liberation of Iraq 15 months ago, Mr. Rove said.
Similarly, Mr. Bush’s acknowledged “miscalculation” about postwar Iraq was an outgrowth of the swift coalition victory, his campaign spokesman said.
“Our military in Iraq quickly toppled Saddam Hussein, even though there were elements of Saddam’s regime, the Republican Guard, that planned to stay and fight,” Mr. Stanzel said. “Unfortunately, they fled quickly and went back into the cities.”
But the explanation did not satisfy Mr. Kerry’s supporters, who said they had suspected all along that Mr. Bush wasn’t up to the job.
“I decided a year or so ago that he cannot win the war on terror. That’s why I endorsed John Kerry,” said retired Air Force Gen. Merrill McPeak, who was one of Mr. Bush’s supporters in 2000.
He said Iraq has turned into “a mess,” and that the Bush administration is so incompetent that it “can’t even float a trial balloon” that the president would go to watch the Iraqi soccer team at the Olympics without it backfiring.
Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt insisted that the president believes victory in the war against terrorism is possible.
“The Democrats’ attempt to stretch and distort the president’s remarks is part of an effort to cover up a record of vacillation and indecision that has raised troubling questions for the American people,” he said.
In defending Mr. Bush’s statements, aides lashed out at Mr. Kerry and his running mate, Mr. Edwards, for their positions on national security.
“The fact that the Kerry-Edwards campaign would try to make an issue out of the president’s strong and consistent leadership in the war on Iraq is quite a reach for them, given the fact that they are two people who voted for the war in Iraq, then voted against the funding for our troops in harm’s way,” Mr. Stanzel said.
Mr. McClellan added: “There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the war on terrorism expressed by Senator Kerry when he says that because of the actions that we’re taking, we’re encouraging the recruitment of terrorists. It’s because of the actions we’re taking that we’re defeating terrorists.”
During campaign stops in New Hampshire and Detroit yesterday, Mr. Bush made no mention of the flap over his recent interviews. Today, he visits Tennessee, Iowa and Pennsylvania. Tomorrow, he visits Ohio before traveling to the Republican National Convention in New York.
Charles Hurt, reporting from Wilmington, N.C., and Stephen Dinan, reporting from New York, contributed to this article.