MADISON, Wis. -- President Bush said in a television interview airing tonight that he does not regret flying to an aircraft carrier in May 2003 and announcing an end of major combat in Iraq -- under the banner "Mission Accomplished" -- despite the subsequent deaths of some 900 US military personnel from ongoing turmoil in that country.
According to excerpts of the interview with Fox News's "The O'Reilly Factor," Bush said twice that he would "absolutely" still don a Navy flight suit and make the declaration if he had to do it over again -- a comment that Democratic rival John F. Kerry attacked yesterday in hopes of tripping up Bush with his own words by depicting him as a leader who refuses to admit, or learn from, his mistakes.
"I'm saying to the troops, on this carrier and elsewhere, thanks for serving America," Bush told Fox News. "And by the way, those sailors and airmen loved seeing the commander in chief. . . . These kids had been on a very long cruise. They'd been on a cruise to both, in two theaters of war now, Afghanistan and Iraq. I flew out there and said thanks. Thanks on behalf of a grateful nation. You bet I'd do it again."
Bush also stood by the decision earlier this year to withdraw US forces from Fallujah, a focal point of the anti-American insurgency in Iraq, because he believed the fighting there could have jeopardized the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqi officials in June. Fallujah has since become a haven for terrorist activity as well, US military commanders say, and is believed to be a base of operations for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian considered to be the mastermind behind a series of kidnappings and beheadings in Iraq this year.
"A lot of people on the ground there thought that if we'd have gone into Fallujah at the time, the interim government would not have been established," Bush said.
The Kerry campaign inserted a new attack over these statements into a speech by the Massachusetts senator upon his arrival yesterday afternoon in the battleground state of Wisconsin, where he and a dozen senior advisers have gathered for four days of practice and coaching for this Thursday's first presidential debate in Miami, which will focus on foreign policy.
"When the president landed on that aircraft carrier, 150 of our young sons and daughters had given their lives [in Iraq]. Since then, tragically, since he said 'mission accomplished,' tragically, over 900 [more] have now died," Kerry told about 250 supporters at this capital city's airport. "But the president continues to live in a fantasy land of spin. George Bush owes the American people the truth, and he owes the troops the truth.
"I will never be a president who just says 'mission accomplished.' I will get the mission accomplished -- that's the difference," Kerry said.
Advisers to Kerry said they believed the president had made a serious tactical error by standing by the 2003 event on the USS Abraham Lincoln, given the bloodshed since then. Some advisers compared the potential damage for Bush to the drubbing that Kerry took when he told reporters at the Grand Canyon in August that he did not regret his 2002 Senate vote authorizing war against Iraq even though no major weapons or other links to Al Qaeda were found there; some Democrats were mystified by the remark, while the Bush camp used it to assail Kerry's views about Iraq as fuzzy and inconsistent.
"I don't think the president realized how much trouble this comment is going to get him in," said one senior Kerry adviser, who insisted on anonymity to discuss political strategy.
Stephanie Cutter, the Democrats' communications director, said that attacking Bush as a stubborn leader who has misled Americans about Iraq is one of the campaign's chief themes heading into Thursday's debate. Cutter said that Kerry and others learned from the debates between Bush and Al Gore in 2000 that it was critical not only to perform well at the face-off, but also to win the "spin war" afterward by creating a negative image for Bush and reinforcing it relentlessly to voters. In 2000, Cutter said, the Bush camp influenced many voters to feel that Gore was an "exaggerator" who promoted his role in issues and events, such as Gore's statement at one debate that he was traveling with the Federal Emergency Management Agency head, James Lee Witt, to view fires in Texas, when, in fact, he was not.
"I think what everybody learned from 2000 is that the Bush people went in with a theory of that debate, and no matter what happened, they stuck with that theory. They won the spin war," Cutter told reporters on Kerry's campaign plane yesterday.
Among the Kerry aides traveling to a resort about 50 miles outside Madison for the debate practice are campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, strategist Robert Shrum, advisers Joe Lockhart and Jonathan Winer, foreign policy adviser Susan Rice, former Clinton White House lawyer Gregory Craig, and former Gore adviser Ron Klain. Craig is playing the role of Bush in mock debate sessions with Kerry, the first of which was held recently at the senator's Beacon Hill townhouse. Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, planned to arrive in Wisconsin last night.
Kerry has previously watched videotape recordings of some of Bush's past debates, such as against incumbent governor Ann Richards of Texas, who he unseated, and recently read an article in the Atlantic Monthly about Bush's debating style, Cutter said.
Meanwhile, former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld appeared on "Fox News Sunday" to talk about what he learned about Kerry's debating skills during their contest in 1996, when Weld unsuccessfully challenged Kerry for his Senate seat.
"I think his strength is that he knows the issues absolutely cold, particularly the domestic issues," Weld said. "And he's one of the most articulate people in public life, if not the most. . . . In debate, I think a particular strength of his is the ability to pivot and change the question to the topic that he really would prefer to discuss."
Asked whether Kerry had any debating weaknesses, Weld said: "He may be a little bit academic on the issues, because he's so interested in the minutiae of public policies that it might be possible to draw him to meander a little bit. Some of the answers could perhaps be shorter."
Patrick Healy can be reached at email@example.com.