Kerry quits campaign after Iraq gaffe seized on by rivals

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John Kerry, the former Democratic presidential candidate, has been forced to apologise for a "botched joke" that has been ferociously seized on by Republicans desperate for an opening with which to attack their seemingly ascendant rivals just days away from crucial mid-term elections.

After a series of co-ordinated attacks on Mr Kerry led by President George Bush and other senior Republicans, the Massachusetts senator apologised for what he said were comments that had been misrepresented. In a further sign of concern about the possible impact of his comments on Democrats' chances in next week's vote, Mr Kerry also announced he was halting his campaigning on behalf of his party's congressional candidates and returning to Washington to avoid being "a distraction". "I said it was a botched joke. Of course, I'm sorry about a botched joke," Mr Kerry said on the Imus in the Morning radio show.

Mr Kerry's apology was a reference to comments he made earlier this week when he spoke to students in California of the need to study hard, telling them: "You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."

Mr Kerry later said his comment was an attempted joke at Mr Bush's expense - suggesting the President's lack of intelligence had left the nation's troops embroiled in a dangerous war in Iraq. He said he would not apologise for his "criticism of the President and his broken policy that kills and maims our heroes in Iraq every single day".

But by then the damage had been done. Delighted to find a way to attack the Democrats, who appear to be poised to seize back control of the House, Mr Bush led a series of attacks on Mr Kerry that were rapidly picked up by right-wing blogs and commentators.

Mr Bush said Mr Kerry's comment was "insulting" and "shameful" and that he should apologise to US forces. War veterans also demanded that he say sorry.

The irony is that Mr Kerry was telling the truth - or at least part of the truth. Figures released by the Pentagon show that the percentage of enlisted troops with college experience is considerably lower than that of the general population. While most officers have college degrees, only 10 per cent of enlisted troops have any experience of higher education compared with about 56 per cent of the general population; and about 23 per cent of the general population has completed some sort of college degree.

Indeed, it is widely accepted that many troops enlist in the military in order to obtain one of the many college degrees offered - something that is regularly promoted by military recruiters. Jessica Lynch, the National Guardswoman from a depressed part of West Virginia who was captured by Iraqi forces in the spring of 2003, famously enlisted partly to obtain a degree to help her become a kindergarten teacher.

But with what will probably be a razor-close election, such realities matter little in the political battleground where even the slightest slip is seized on by the opposition, even if the slip is made by someone such as Mr Kerry who is not contesting the election.

The senator's comments will undoubtedly raise questions about his possible second bid for the White House in 2008. How damaging they will be for the Democrats next week is unclear but some of his colleagues have joined the chorus calling for him to say sorry. Harold Ford Jnr, the incumbent Democratic congressman from Tennessee who is behind in the polls, said Mr Kerry should apologise to US troops "whatever the intent" of his comments.