Under pressure to make a clear-cut apology to the military, Sen. John Kerry issued a statement this afternoon, saying: "I sincerely regret that my words were misinterpreted to wrongly imply anything negative about those in uniform, and I personally apologize to any service member, family member, or American who was offended."
Kerry also managed a swing at Republicans, accusing them of jumping on his "misinterpreted" words to distract voters.
"It is clear the Republican Party would rather talk about anything but their failed security policy," his statement said." I don't want my verbal slip to be a diversion from the real issues."
The apology comes two days after Kerry told college students that if "you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."
The White House was quick with a response to Kerry's apology.
"Sen. Kerry's apology to the troops for his insulting comments came late, but it was the right thing to do," deputy press secretary Dana Perino said.
Earlier today, with Republicans eager to keep the story of Kerry's gaffe front and center in the final days of the campaign, President Bush got help from Rush Limbaugh.
The conservative talk-show host told the president that military people in Iraq "get insulted routinely. John Kerry's not the first. He's just the latest, Mr. President. … And that's his thinking on who compromises military members: That they're basically uneducated rubes."
The president had a simple reply to Limbaugh: "Yes."
Until now, the Republicans have been stuck in damage control over the Iraq War.
But Kerry changed that with what he called his "botched joke" tying "intellectual laziness" to the war.
He said later that he had been referring to Bush, not to military men and women who have served in Iraq.
Democratic candidates around the country, many of them privately furious with Kerry, are doing their best to separate themselves from him.
It's what many Republican candidates have been doing this fall as they try to put distance between themselves and Bush.
Now, Kerry's bumbling has given the GOP some ammunition for an attack.
After playing defense for weeks, Republicans are relentlessly targeting Kerry. The president and his aides have done their share.
Campaigning Tuesday night in Georgia, the president called Kerry's remarks "insulting … and shameful."
Today Bush's top political aide, Karl Rove, told reporters at the White House: "He's suggesting that only stupid people are willing to volunteer to fight in our military to go into harm's way in Iraq."
Even Sen. John McCain, a Republican who calls Kerry "a friend," said he should apologize.
On ABC's "Good Morning America," McCain said Kerry "owes an apology to the men and women who are serving in Iraq out of patriotism and love of country, not because of any academic deficiencies."
Today the Republican National Committee released a new Web ad titled "Apologize." It ended by saying: "John Kerry should apologize. Our soldiers are waiting."
Kerry has canceled campaign appearances with Democrats in Minnesota, Iowa and Pennsylvania.
A spokesman for Minnesota Democratic congressional candidate Tim Walz said a Kerry visit would be a distraction.
Another congressional hopeful in Iowa said Kerry's comments were inappropriate.
In Pennsylvania, where Kerry canceled an appearance with senatorial candidate Bob Casey, the Republican incumbent, Rick Santorum, called on Casey to go further and disavow Kerry's remarks.
On the other side of the continent, Mike McGavick, a Republican hoping to win Sen. Maria Cantwell's seat, accused her of refusing to take a stand on Kerry: "She has evaded comment time and time again in this campaign. Not this time."
Although Kerry has halted campaign stops, he went on Don Imus' radio and TV show this morning to defend himself.
"I'm not going to let these guys distort something completely out of its context solely for the purpose of avoiding responsibility," he said. "Look, everybody knows I botched a joke. It's not the first time anybody's done that."
When pressed to apologize, Kerry still insisted it was a bad joke and not directed toward the troops.
"Well, I did. Of course I'm sorry about a botched joke," he said. "You think I love botched jokes? I mean, you know, it's pretty stupid."
Republicans are trying to ride Kerry's mistake all the way to Election Day.
"Until this thing, we had serious morale problems in some places," one GOP political consultant, who did not want to be identified, told ABC News. "What Kerry has done is give us more energy, more focus. That's very important in the final week of a campaign. People say maybe Kerry's screw-up will get more Republicans to the polls. Indirectly, that is true. What it will really do is get our workers more ginned up to do their job of getting our base out on Tuesday."
Peter Hart, a longtime Democratic pollster, took a different view.
Last month Hart said the Capitol Hill sex scandal involving former GOP Rep. Mark Foley would not really help the Democrats.
Now he says the Kerry gaffe will not help the Republicans.
"This is a big-issue election, not a little-breeze election, where the slightest breeze can cause a real flutter," Hart said. "People are deeply unhappy about Iraq and have made up their minds."
When pressed, Hart acknowledged that in very, very close races such as Senate contests in Virginia and Missouri, Kerry's blunder could make a difference. But he said that is highly unlikely.
"For Republicans to use the Kerry thing is like using a bathtub full of water to put out a house fire," he said.
Still, the flap over Kerry has diverted Democrats from their message, much as the Foley scandal did to Republicans.
The Kerry story, which has dominated political coverage in the media for the second day, resulted in little coverage for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's most far-reaching criticism of Bush's handling of the war.
She called for "a fundamental change in course."
Ordinarily, a detailed critique of Iraq policy by a possible presidential contender in 2008 would likely garner widespread attention. But it was virtually lost as the media focused on Kerry.
Today Clinton was one of the many Democrats who separated themselves from Kerry.
She said Kerry's comments were inappropriate, and suggested Kerry should have more respect for the troops.
Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a vocal opponent of the war, tried to defend Kerry in a written statement: "I'm sure, knowing John Kerry, he didn't mean in any way to denigrate our troops."
When questioned by reporters, though, Murtha added: "He should quit trying to … tell jokes, because that was no joke. It was a serious miscalculation on his part."