PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) - President Bush criticized Democratic rival John Kerry on Tuesday for saying he would still have voted to authorize the war in Iraq even if he had known that no weapons of mass destruction would be found.
"Almost 220 days after switching positions to declare himself the anti-war candidate, my opponent has found a new nuance," saying he "now agrees it was the right decision to go into Iraq," Bush told several thousand cheering supporters in the Florida Panhandle, a heavily military area.
"After months of questioning my motives and even my credibility, Senator Kerry now agrees with me that even though we have not found the stockpiles of weapons we all believe were there ... he would have voted to go into Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from power," Bush said.
"I want to thank Senator Kerry for clearing that up," the president added.
On Monday, Kerry said he would have voted to authorize the war knowing what he does now, but that he would have used the power more effectively than the current commander in chief. The Massachusetts senator voted in October 2002 to give Bush authority for using military force in Iraq, but voted against supplemental funding for the effort .
Kerry's comments came after Bush challenged him for a yes-or-no answer to the question of whether he would have supported the invasion "knowing what we know now" about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction.
"I have given my answer. We did the right thing and the world is better off for it," the president said last Friday.
In response, Kerry said, "Yes, I would have voted for the authority. I believe it was the right authority for a president to have." But he faulted the use of that authority, saying Bush sent troops into war without a plan to win the peace.
With Sen. John McCain at his side, Bush said a second-term goal is to spread peace and fight terrorism.
"Ask who will best lead our nation forward," Bush said to applause on his 24th presidential visit to the state that won him the 2000 election by 537 votes. The daylong bus tour of the panhandle, including stops in Niceville and Panama City, also is Bush's seventh trip of the year to Florida, where brother Jeb is governor.
Polls suggest Bush and Kerry are close in Florida, which has 27 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the Nov. 2 election, and both candidates are blitzing the state with advertising.
Introducing Bush, McCain said vanquishing terrorism "is the great test of our generation" and praised the president for leading "with great moral clarity."
"He has not wavered. He has not flinched from the hard choices," said McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam. McCain challenged Bush for the GOP nomination in 2000 and has had several public disagreements with the administration.
But by appearing with Bush, McCain helps to counter Kerry's decorated Navy service during Vietnam, a period that Bush spent serving stateside in the Texas Air National Guard.
McCain also campaigns with Bush in Arizona and New Mexico on Wednesday.
Air Force One landed at the Naval Air Station here, which serves as the launching point for the flight training of every Naval aviator, naval flight officer and enlisted air crewman. McCain served there.
Voters in the Florida Panhandle historically have elected Republicans or moderate Democrats.
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