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Bush challenges rival on Iraq war

Asks Democrat for 'yes' or 'no'

STRATHAM, N.H. -- President Bush demanded yesterday that Senator John F. Kerry give a clear "yes or no" about the war in Iraq, hammering his rival in the presidential race to clarify whether he would have declared war "knowing what we know now" about the absence of weapons of mass destruction.

"That's an important question, and the American people deserve a clear 'yes' or 'no' answer," Bush told several hundred Republican supporters at a barbecue on a family farm in New Hampshire, the most closely contested state in New England. "I have given my answer. We did the right thing, and the world is better off for it."

Kerry, who voted to authorize the invasion but has turned his criticisms of Bush's handling of the war into a central campaign theme, ratcheted up the debate over national security earlier this week by saying that administration policies were inspiring new recruits to join terrorist groups. Bush has pushed back hard against that charge and continued to do so yesterday. "It's upside-down logic," he said. "It shows a misunderstanding of the enemy."

But in challenging Kerry to make an up-or-down call on the correctness of the war in hindsight, Bush sought to underscore the most lasting impression of the race so far: that the president is firmly resolute in every decision he makes, while Kerry is prone to changing his mind. Several Republican officials circulated the "yes or no" line as part of their message of the day, suggesting the campaign is intensifying its already steady focus on Kerry as a "flip-flopper" on any number of issues.

Despite his criticisms of the war, Kerry has repeatedly said he thinks it was right to depose Saddam Hussein and has not ruled out the possibility that he would have wound up leading an invasion if he had been president. Still, Kerry has come close to accusing Bush of foolish consistency for refusing to revisit the way the war has been waged. Kerry's foreign policy adviser, Susan Rice, yesterday responded to Bush by welcoming his remarks.

"If George W. Bush wants to debate the way he rushed our country into war, I'm sure the American people would welcome that debate," Rice said.

Bush's comments on Iraq came as he headed into a weekend of family activities focusing on the wedding of his nephew, George P. Bush, in Kennebunkport today. Before leaving for New Hampshire, Bush spoke at the UNITY conference in Washington, D.C., for minority journalists.

Following Kerry's example from the day before, Bush took several questions from the audience, including one about his position on affirmative action and college admissions policies.

Bush, who has long opposed race-based admissions policies in higher education, seemed to reject for the first time the "legacy admissions" policy, which grants children of alumni special access to elite schools.

Bush himself is a third-generation graduate of Yale, where his father and grandfather were also schooled and where his daughter Barbara graduated earlier this year.

Asked to describe his feelings about legacy admissions, Bush replied, "I think it ought to be based upon merit." Asked whether his response meant that he thought colleges should abandon preferences for alumni children, he said, "Well, I think so, yes."

And in a knock on his own mediocre grades, Bush said, joking: "I had to knock on a lot of doors to follow in the old man's footsteps."

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