San Diego Union Tribune

August 31, 2004

Terror war comment dogs president

By Finlay Lewis
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

NASHUA, N.H. President Bush yesterday sought to showcase an agenda to address the concerns of economically stressed Americans, but his campaign found itself forced to explain why he told a television interviewer earlier in the day that it might not be possible ever to "win" the war on terror.

The controversy confronted Bush as he was setting out on a three-day march to the Republican National Convention to claim his renomination with an acceptance speech Thursday night.

Questions about his remarks seemed likely to distract from his attempt to use the next several days as an opportunity to lay out an agenda for a second term.

Democrat John Kerry's campaign seized on Bush's comments made in an NBC interview. Citing the president's early statements pledging victory in the war against terror, the Kerry campaign declared that Bush "flip-flops on whether he can win the war on terror."

Bush and his surrogates frequently accuse Kerry of having flip-flopped on several issues during his two decades in the Senate, including votes relating to the war in Iraq.

The situation arose when NBC interviewer Matt Lauer asked Bush whether the war could be won. According to a transcript, Bush replied, "I don't think you can win it. But I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world."

Seizing on the opportunity, Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards, said, "This is no time to declare defeat."

Briefing reporters after reports of the interview began to circulate, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, "He was talking about winning it in the conventional sense . . . We face an unconventional enemy. I don't think that there will ever be a formal surrender or a treaty signed, like we have in wars past."

Bush did not directly allude to the incident either in his remarks here at a high school "Meet President Bush" event or later in an outdoor rally in Taylor, Mich., a Detroit suburb.

However, he told a large and enthusiastic crowd gathered in a park in Taylor, "We'll keep our commitments to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq."

"In the long run our security is not guaranteed by force alone," he said, adding, "By promoting liberty we are promoting peace . . . I will never relent in defending America whatever it takes."

Appearing earlier at Nashua High School North, Bush took credit for spurring the economy to recovery from the 2001 recession and emphasized his first-term initiatives some realized; others stalled in Congress in education, health care, and the battle against the AIDS pandemic in Africa and elsewhere.

He attacked Kerry although not by name for proposing expensive tax-and-spend fiscal policies and allegedly planning to "nationalize" health care.

Fielding several questions complaining of high health insurance premiums the president devoted substantial time to outlining his proposals for an expansion of existing tax advantaged medical savings accounts, limiting malpractice litigation and establishing purchasing pools that would allow small businesses to cover their work forces at a reasonable cost.

"We're not going to nationalize health care under George W., and my opponent is," said Bush. "That is the difference. My opponent will. We won't."

It was not clear what the president had in mind because Kerry hasn't proposed a national health care system.

The Massachusetts Democrat has proposed a plan that would use existing programs to provide health coverage to most children, along with various measures to help employers cope with rising premium costs. His most ambitious proposal calls for the federal government to reimburse employers for 75 percent of catastrophic health care costs above $50,000.

Bush's itinerary will take him to Iowa, Pennsylvania and Tennessee today and to Columbus, Ohio, the following day on the final leg to New York.