CANONSBURG, Pa. - Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry on Monday called the invasion of Iraq "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time" and said his goal was to withdraw U.S. troops in a first White House term.
Under pressure from some Democrats to change the subject from national security -- regarded by many as President Bush's strength -- Kerry tried to focus on the economy and other domestic issues at a neighborhood meeting in Canonsburg, but members of the audience raised Iraq.
In Racine, West Virginia, Kerry assailed Bush's record, repeatedly telling a Labor Day rally the "W" in Bush's name stood for "wrong -- wrong choices, wrong judgment, wrong priorities, wrong direction for our country" on everything from jobs to Iraq.
Kerry was trying to reinvigorate his campaign with a Labor Day offensive in three battleground states -- Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio -- after weekend polls showed him trailing Bush by double digits.
The Massachusetts senator, who has said he would have voted to give Bush the authority to use force if necessary against Saddam Hussein even if he had known at the time that the Iraqi leader had no weapons of mass destruction, has struggled to draw clear contrasts with the president.
"I would not have done just one thing differently than the president on Iraq, I would have done everything differently than the president on Iraq," Kerry said.
He denied that he was "Monday morning quarterbacking." The Bush campaign said Kerry had "demonstrated nothing but indecision and vacillation" on Iraq."
"I said this from the beginning of the debate to the walk up to the war," Kerry told supporters. "I said, Mr. President don't rush to war, take the time to build a legitimate coalition and have a plan to win the peace."
He said Bush had failed on all three counts. He called the president's talk about a coalition fighting alongside about 125,000 U.S. troops "the phoniest thing I've ever heard."
"You've about 500 troops here, 500 troops there and it's American troops that are 90 percent of the combat casualties and it's American taxpayers that are paying 90 percent of the cost of the war," he said. "It's the wrong war, in the wrong place at the wrong time."
GETTING OUT OF IRAQ
Bush, headed for a Labor Day swing into the battleground state of Missouri, accused his rival of changing his position on Iraq after bringing in new advisers to boost his campaign.
"After voting for the war but against funding it, after saying he would have voted for the war even knowing everything we know today, my opponent woke up this morning with new campaign advisers and yet another new position. Suddenly he's against it again," Bush said in remarks prepared for delivery at a campaign rally in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.
With many Democrats outside Kerry's team urging him to take steps to revitalize his White House bid, Kerry moved John Sasso, a longtime adviser, from the Democratic National Committee to a top job inside his campaign.
Sasso will travel with the candidate through the Nov. 2 election. Several ex-aides to President Bill Clinton also were added recently, including former White House press secretary Joe Lockhart and Joel Johnson, a former senior White House aide.
A Kerry campaign spokesman said it was simply an expansion of staff for the final two-month race.
Kerry, like Bush, promised that the United States would stay the course until Iraq was secure, saying: "We have to do what we need to do to get out and do it right."
He pledged to internationalize the forces in Iraq and do a better job of fighting the war on terror.
He also said Washington should make it clear to the world that the United States had no "long-term designs to maintain bases and troops in Iraq."
"We want those troops home and my goal would be to try to get them home in my first term and I believe that can be done," he said.
If Kerry were to beat Bush in the Nov. 2 presidential election, his first four-year term would end in January 2009.
© 2004 Reuters Ltd