Top Democrat John Kerry apologized on Wednesday for remarks widely seen as a slight against US troops in Iraq, as the clock ticked on the Democrats' push to win control of Congress in next week's vote.
"I sincerely regret that my words were misinterpreted," the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate said in a statement late on Wednesday.
"As a combat veteran, I want to make it clear to anyone in uniform and to their loved ones: my poorly stated joke at a rally was not about, and never intended to refer to any troop," the senator from Massachusetts said.
"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 any American who was offended," he added.
Kerry earlier on Wednesday withdrew from campaigning for Democratic candidates to contain damage from his remarks on Monday that Americans who neglect their education would "get stuck in Iraq."
The comments, which were re-broadcast repeatedly on US TV, unleashed a maelstrom of outrage from partisans on both the left and the right.
In an interview with MSNBC television earlier on Wednesday, Kerry said he was leaving the campaign trail.
"I'm coming back to Washington today ... because I don't want to be a distraction to these campaigns," Kerry said on US TV, adding that the comments to students in California Monday were a "botched joke."
He accused his Republican opponents of using his faux pas to try to shift attention away from the unpopular war in Iraq.
"Of course, I'm sorry about a botched joke. You think I love botched jokes? I mean, it's pretty stupid," he told MSNBC TV.
"This is a textbook Republican campaign strategy ... try to make something else the issue," Kerry said.
"If anyone thinks that a veteran, someone like me ... would somehow criticize more than 140,000 troops serving in Iraq and not the president and his people who put them there, they're crazy," he said.
His decision not to appear with fellow Democrats came after several members of his own party began to distance themselves from Kerry and even rebuke him.
"What Senator Kerry said was inappropriate," said fellow Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton, adding that Americans "cannot let it divert us" from more important issues.
"We do need a new policy in Iraq. I and others have been advocating that for quite some time. We do need to get our fiscal house back in order. We do need to deal with the serious problems affecting our country, and that's what I hope this election's about," Clinton said.
Democrats on the stump also criticized Kerry, including Nebraska House candidate Scott Kleeb who called the senator's remark "an example of politics at its worst."
Iowa Democratic House candidate Bruce Braley also asked Kerry not to appear with him yesterday at a rally as planned, according to press reports.
And Democratic candidate Harold Ford, running for Tennessee's vacant Senate seat, also called on Kerry to apologize to US troops in Iraq.
But Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean defended Kerry's remarks as harmless "bloopers," according to media reports.
"Kerry made a blooper. Bloopers happen," Dean told reporters on Wednesday.
Republican leaders meanwhile -- including US President George W. Bush -- seized upon the contretemps as proof of their long-held assertion that Democrats are inept and insensitive on military and security matters, including the key issue of the way forward in Iraq.