NASHUA -- President Bush said yesterday the war on terror is not winnable, but pledged not to back down in his efforts to root out terrorism across the globe, in an interview broadcast yesterday on NBC's ''Today" show.
Bush said in the interview that any retreat ''would be a disaster for your children." But when asked whether it's possible to win the war, he said it was not.
''I don't think you can win it," Bush said. ''But I think you can create conditions so that . . . those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world."
Democrats and Senator John F. Kerry's campaign seized on Bush's comment on ''Today" to blast his foreign policies. They said Bush has pinned much of his reelection campaign on his ability to fight terrorism, but now appears to be declaring defeat.
''After months of listening to the Republicans base their campaign on their singular ability to win the war on terror, the president now says we can't win the war on terrorism," said Senator John Edwards, Kerry's running mate. ''This is no time to declare defeat. It won't be easy, and it won't be quick, but we have a comprehensive, long-term plan to make America safer."
Kerry, who is vacationing on Nantucket, said the war on terror was ''absolutely" winnable.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan quickly sought to clarify Bush's remarks, saying that the president was simply referring to his contention that the war on terror is a ''different kind of war."
''I don't think you can expect that there will ever be a formal surrender or a treaty signed like we have in wars past," McClellan said. ''That's what he was talking about when he was talking about that. It requires a generational commitment to win this war on terrorism."
The comments reflected a rhetorical softening by the president, who has often said on the campaign trail that Americans should vote for the candidate they think would best ''fight and win this war on terror."
As recently as Sunday -- the day after he conducted the ''Today" interview -- Bush said at a rally in Wheeling, W. Va., ''I am running again because I know we have more to do to wage and win the war against terror." His stump speeches at two Ohio stops Saturday included similar language. At a news conference in April, Bush said that in the election, voters will ''take a look at me and my opponent and say, 'Let's see, which one of them can better win the war on terror?' "
Bush has rarely granted media interviews during his presidency, but he has engaged in a flurry of them in recent days. Yesterday marked the third time in recent days when a comment in one of those interviews has drawn fire from the Kerry-Edwards campaign and distracted from the president's campaign message.
On Sunday, a Time magazine interview in which Bush called the war in Iraq a ''catastrophic success" drew accusations that he was blaming the military for troubles there. And his admission Friday in The New York Times that he miscalculated ''what the conditions would be" in postwar Iraq led Democrats to accuse him of lacking a coherent plan in the country.
Yesterday, Bush made a quick stop in Nashua, where he stoked the mistrust of big government that colors New Hampshire civic life. He accused Kerry of seeking to put health care under control of the federal government.
''We're not going to nationalize health care under George W.," Bush said during a forum in the gymnasium of Nashua High School North, with Governor Mitt Romney and Governor Craig Benson of New Hampshire at his side. ''That's the difference. My opponent will. We won't."
''I'm running against a fellow who's already promised $2 trillion in new spending, and we haven't even gotten to the stretch run yet," Bush said.
Kerry has disputed assertions that he is seeking to nationalize the delivery of medicine.
Phil Singer, a Kerry campaign spokesman, said Bush is ''lashing out on the campaign trail" to cover up for the fact that his own health care policies haven't worked in reducing the rolls of the uninsured. He also said Bush has ''turned record surpluses into record deficits."
''What's motivating this is his plan has now been discredited," Singer said. ''George Bush is the miscalculator in chief when it comes to health care and so many other issues."
The event drew an unusual number of protesters, with a crowd of more than 150 carrying signs to criticize Bush during his brief visit. Bush also got a rare challenging question from an audience member. A young woman demanded to know how Bush can call Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel a ''man of peace" when, she said, he is responsible for the ''death and torture" of innocent Palestinians.
The president responded with a firm defense of Sharon, and touted the ability of democracy to ''transform" nations.
''Ariel Sharon is defending his country against terrorist attacks, just like we are," Bush said. ''Ariel Sharon is a duly elected official in a democracy."
Bush carried New Hampshire in 2000 by just 7,211 votes, barely 1 percent. Republicans outnumber Democrats in the Granite State, though voters without a party affiliation remain the largest slice of the New Hampshire electorate.
Coming off a heated presidential primary this year, Democrats have begun to close the registration gap in New Hampshire, giving the Kerry campaign hope of a New England sweep. Thirty-four percent of registered voters are Republicans and 28 percent are Democrats, compared with a 37-to-26 split after the 2002 congressional and gubernatorial races, said Dante Scala, a political science professor at Saint Anselm College in Manchester.
''The gap has closed between Democrats and Republicans, and that makes the undeclared voters more important than ever," Scala said.
At a rally last night in Taylor, Mich., Bush told the crowd, ''We've got more to do to wage and win the war on terror."
Bush will visit three states today and a fourth tomorrow before heading to New York tomorrow night. He will accept his party's nomination at the convention Thursday evening.
Rick Klein can be reached at email@example.com.