PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Having called on Sen. John F. Kerry to explain his position on the Iraq war, President Bush on Tuesday derided Kerry's answer as disingenuous, accusing him of finding "a new nuance." The Kerry campaign responded by accusing Bush of distorting Kerry's words and resorting to desperate tactics.
The exchange was the latest round in the candidates' sparring match over Iraq, an issue that repeatedly returns to center stage in the campaign.
Appearing with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) at a rowdy dockside rally, Bush said the Democratic nominee portrayed himself as an opponent of the war but was trying to stay on both sides of the issue.
Kerry said Monday that he would have voted to give the president the authority to go to war even if he had known there were no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, but that he disagreed with the way Bush used that authority.
But in his remarks, Bush asserted there was no such distinction. "My opponent has found a new nuance," the president said Tuesday. "He now agrees it was the right decision to go into Iraq.
"After months of questioning my motives, and even my credibility, Sen. Kerry now agrees with me that even though we've not found the stockpiles of weapons we believed were there, knowing everything we know today, he would have voted to go into Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from power," Bush said to cheers and jeers from the crowd.
"I want to thank Sen. Kerry for clearing that up."
Then he added: "Be careful, there's still 84 days left in this campaign for him to change his mind."
Kerry advisors said Bush was twisting the senator's words to avoid Kerry's own questions about the president's handling of the war.
"The Bush line of questioning ... Kerry's vote on Iraq and distorting his answer, reflects a line of desperation," said retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who spoke on behalf of the Kerry campaign.
Each campaign had planned to discuss other issues Tuesday -- job training for Bush, nuclear waste for Kerry. But as has happened before, they came back to Iraq. Bush uses the war to support his claim that Kerry vacillates. Kerry uses the war to buttress his claim that Bush lacks credibility.
The latest round began last week when Bush challenged Kerry to answer the question of whether -- knowing what is known now -- he would still have voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq.
Kerry answered Monday: "Yes, I would have voted for the authority. I believe it's the right authority for a president to have.
"But I would have used that authority ... effectively," he told reporters during a visit to the Grand Canyon. "I would have done this very differently from the way President Bush has."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Kerry's answer meant the senator was now claiming to support the war.
But Kerry, appearing Tuesday night at a rally at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, denied any inconsistency.
"I thought the United States needed to stand up to Saddam Hussein, and I voted to stand up to Saddam Hussein," the Democrat told a crowd of more than 10,000. "But I thought we ought to do it right. I thought we ought to reach out to other countries and that we ought to build an international coalition."
Attacking Bush's policy toward Iraq, Kerry said the solution was to start fresh with an administration that could bring other nations into the rebuilding process.
Bush toured the heavily Republican Florida Panhandle on Tuesday, the first of five straight days of campaigning this week. The fact that he is stumping so intensively in August -- normally the last rest period before the fall campaign -- is a sign of the closeness of the race.
Florida, which decided the 2000 presidential election by a margin of 537 votes, is one of the central battlegrounds.
McCain is spending two days campaigning with Bush, lending his popularity and military credentials. He gave the president perhaps his strongest endorsement to date.
Introducing him at the bus tour's first stop, in Pensacola, McCain described the war in Iraq as "a fight against good and evil, the difference between right and wrong."
He praised Bush as a leader "who has not flinched from the hard choices."
Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak in Las Vegas contributed to this report.