Wednesday, September 1, 2004

ALLEMAN, Iowa — President Bush yesterday acknowledged misspeaking when he called the war on terror unwinnable, but tried to put the flap behind him by claiming the election is starting to swing his way.

“I should have made my point more clear,” Mr. Bush told radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh. “I probably needed to be a little more articulate.”

In an interview that aired Monday, Mr. Bush told NBC’s Matt Lauer that “I don’t think you can win” the war against terrorism. Democrats, though, say Mr. Bush made a telling admission two days ago, and boiled it down to a crisp sound bite.

“We went from ‘Mission accomplished’ in the war on terror to ‘Mission impossible,’ ” said Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who is leading the Democratic Response Team in New York.

But the president said yesterday that “what I meant was that this is not a conventional war.”

“In a conventional war, there would be a peace treaty or there would be a moment where somebody would sit on the side and say we quit,” he said.

“That’s not the kind of war we’re in, and that’s what I was saying,” Mr. Bush added. “You cannot negotiate with these people.”

The president telephoned Mr. Limbaugh, the nation’s most influential radio talk-show host, hours after reassuring the American Legion’s national convention in Nashville that the war on terror was indeed “one that we will win.”

Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry planned to address the Legion’s convention today. The Massachusetts Democrat’s campaign said the president’s speech amounted to a “flip-flop” on a basic question of national security.

“George Bush might be able to read a speech saying we can win the war on terror,” said Kerry campaign spokesman Phil Singer. “But as we saw yesterday, he’s clearly got real doubts about his ability to do so and with good reason.”

But the president said Mr. Kerry was the one who flip-flopped on national security by opposing a White House plan to withdraw up to 70,000 troops from Europe and Asia in the next decade.

“Hours after I announced this plan, my opponent came out against it, and that’s his right to do so,” Mr. Bush said. “The only problem is that he endorsed the idea just 17 days earlier.”

The line prompted laughter and applause from thousands of legionnaires in the Opryland Hotel. Mr. Singer denied that his boss had flip-flopped.

During his interview with Mr. Limbaugh, the president said Mr. Kerry blundered by voting for Operation Iraqi Freedom, but against $87 billion in funding for U.S. troops.

“He made, in my judgment, a big mistake by saying ‘yes, we can use force but we’re not going to provide the troops the equipment necessary to fight the war,’ ” Mr. Bush said.

The president seemed buoyed by a flurry of recent polls that show him pulling even or slightly ahead of Mr. Kerry, whose support in a variety of areas appears to be eroding.

“I tell you, the crowds we’re seeing out here are really big,” Mr. Bush said. “I believe something is going on here in the hinterlands, in the heartland, that is going to mean a victory come November.”

He added: “The most important thing people can do is pray.”

Mr. Bush, who arrives at the Republican National Convention in New York today, was unapologetic about numerous GOP references to the terrorist attacks of September 11. He laughed when Mr. Limbaugh reminded him that New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer “literally warned the Republicans not to mention the September 11th attacks at the convention.”

“Evidently Rudy didn’t heed his warnings,” the president replied. He was referring to former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who on Monday gave an impassioned convention speech about September 11.

“Look, September 11th is a defining moment in our history, and it’s certainly a defining moment in my presidency,” he said. “The question is whether or not we’ve learned the lessons.”

Mr. Bush spent yesterday campaigning with Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, who downplayed the president’s assertion that the war was unwinnable.

“What he meant was, we’re never going to have a peace signing on the Missouri,” Mr. McCain said, referring to the U.S. battleship on which Japan signed World War II surrender papers. “They’ll just have to be defeated, that’s all.”

He added: “It didn’t need clearing up, but winning is what we’re going to do.”

But Mr. Vilsack said Mr. Bush’s statement Monday was an “extraordinary” admission, and said one indication was the damage-control operation the administration and campaign have mounted.

“Now we have aides trying to explain what the president said not once, but twice,” Mr. Vilsack said.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said he watched the interview “several times” and “I could not disagree more emphatically. George Bush was asked if the war on terror is winnable. His answer is no.”

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report from New York.

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