By Caren Bohan
SPRINGFIELD, Ohio (Reuters) - President Bush on Monday mocked his Democratic rival John Kerry for shifting his positions on Iraq so many times he could "debate himself" in this week's face-off between the two candidates.
Bush's ridicule of the Massachusetts senator came as Kerry has been hammering him daily on Iraq, accusing him of mishandling the chaotic aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion and giving overly optimistic assessments of conditions there.
The first presidential campaign debate on Thursday in Coral Gables, Fla. will focus on foreign affairs and may be pivotal to the outcome of the Nov. 2 election.
At an Ohio campaign event, Bush referred to his practice sessions for the debate at his Texas ranch over the weekend.
"It's been a little tough to prepare because (Kerry) keeps changing positions on the war on the terror," he joked.
"He voted for the use of force in Iraq and then didn't vote to fund the troops," Bush said. "He complained that we're not spending enough money to help in reconstruction in Iraq and now he's saying we're spending too much. He said it was the right decision to go into Iraq and now he calls it the wrong war.
"He could probably spend 90 minutes debating himself," Bush added to hoots of laughter from his supporters.
Kerry responded that with American soldiers' lives on the line in Iraq, it was no time for jokes.
"When U.S. soldiers are in harm's way, the American people don't want jokes and fantasy spin from their president, they want to hear the truth," he said in a statement issued from Spring Green, Wisconsin where he is preparing for the debate.
Kerry has accused Bush's administration of sending mixed signals over Iraq, noting differing statements from officials about plans for elections in Iraq in January.
For example, while Bush and other officials have been adamant that elections will go forward in Iraq in January, Secretary of State Colin Powell been more cautious.
Bush broke off from his preparations for a bus trip where he reached out to Ohio voters.
"I understand you've been hit hard in Ohio," he said of the state's loss of manufacturing jobs in recent years. "I know there's people still hurting in this state."
Ohio is one of several Midwest battleground states that Bush has focused heavily on ahead of the election. (Additional reporting by Adam Entous)