WASHINGTON (AP) President Bush headed west to stump for Republican candidates Thursday after reaffirming his confidence that the GOP will maintain control of both the Senate and House in next week's elections.
"I don't believe it's over until everybody votes,'' Bush said Wednesday in an Oval Office interview. "And I believe that people are concerned about the amount of taxes they pay, and I know many people are concerned about whether or not this country is secure against attack.''
The president was campaigning in Montana and Nevada on Thursday before spending the night in Missouri in advance of appearances there Friday.
Sen. John Kerry, meanwhile, Bush's opponent in the 2004 race for the White House, was regrouping a day after apologizing to service members for remarks that many interpreted as an insult to U.S. forces in Iraq, and which knocked him off the trail, at least temporarily.
Kerry had been campaigning actively for Democratic candidates coast-to-coast, but canceled appearances in three states after a furor generated by his remarks Monday evening at a California college.
The Massachusetts senator's future role in the run-up to next Tuesday's election was uncertain as Democratic Senate candidates from Montana to New York distanced themselves from his remark.
Rep. Harold Ford, seeking to win a Senate seat for Democrats in Tennessee, was among those calling for Kerry to apologize to the troops Wednesday a few hours before he did so.
Kerry apologized to "any service member, family member or American'' offended by remarks deemed by Republicans and some Democrats alike to be insulting to U.S. forces in Iraq. Kerry has characterized the remarks as the result of a botched joke.
But six days before the election, he said he wanted to avoid becoming a distraction in the final days of the battle for control of Congress. He added he sincerely regretted that his words were "misinterpreted to imply anything negative about those in uniform.''
In a brief statement, Kerry attacked Bush for a "failed security policy.'' Yet his apology, issued after prominent Democrats had urged him to cancel public appearances, was designed to quell a controversy that party leaders feared would stall their drive for big gains on Nov. 7.
With polls showing the public opposed to the war in Iraq, Democrats have expressed increasing optimism in recent days that they will gain the 15 seats they need to win control of the House. Democrats must pick up six seats to win the Senate, a taller challenge, and both parties made last-minute efforts to increase the number of competitive races.
Democrats cringed at the prospect of Kerry becoming the face of the party for the second consecutive national campaign. "No one wants to have the 2004 election replayed,'' said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., like Kerry, a potential contender for the 2008 nomination.
Congressional candidates in Iowa and Minnesota swiftly made plain that Kerry was no longer welcome to appear at scheduled rallies, and the senator scrapped an appearance in Philadelphia.
"It was a real dumb thing to say. He should say sorry,'' said Democrat Claire McCaskill, running in a tight Senate campaign in Missouri.
"Senator Kerry's apology to the troops for his insulting comments came late but it was the right thing to do,'' said Dana Perino, the deputy White House press secretary.
"Anybody who is in a position to serve this country ought to understand the consequences of words,'' Bush said in an interview with conservative talk-radio personality Rush Limbaugh.
First lady Laura Bush, campaigning in Ohio, did not refer directly to the Kerry flap, but said Americans discussing the war in Iraq, especially politicians, should be careful what they say.
"Responsible candidates understand that the men and women of our military are risking their lives for us, and that we must conduct our debate here at home in a way that does not jeopardize our troops in harm's way,'' she said, calling for "conversations conducted with civility and respect.''
Kerry stirred controversy when he told a group of California students that individuals who don't study hard and do their homework would likely "get stuck in Iraq.'' Aides said the senator had mistakenly dropped one word from his prepared remarks, which was originally written to say "you end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq.'' In that context, they said, it was clear Kerry was referring to Bush, not to the troops.
Democratic officials said the leaders of the party's campaign committees had relayed word to Kerry for him to avoid becoming a distraction.
Democrats have privately told outsiders they have locked up 10 of the 15 GOP-held seats they need and claim to be on track to defeat four Republican incumbents. They need to pick up six Senate senates to control that chamber.