By JENNIFER LOVEN/The Associated Press
July 5, 2008 | 2:47 p.m. CST
ST. LOUIS — Barack Obama said Saturday that he was surprised at how the media has "finely calibrated" his recent words on Iraq, and denied that he intends to do anything but end the war if he is elected.
"I was a little puzzled by the frenzy that I set off by what I thought was a pretty innocuous statement," the expected Democratic presidential nominee told reporters flying with him to Missouri from Montana. "I am absolutely committed to ending the war."
On Thursday in North Dakota, Obama said that "I'll ... continue to refine my policy" on Iraq after an upcoming trip there. With a promise to end the war the central premise of his candidacy, the Obama campaign has struggled over the past two days to push back against Republicans and others who say his recent statement could be a softening.
In two news conferences on Thursday, Obama said any refinement of his position on Iraq wouldn't be related to his promise to remove combat forces within 16 months of taking office, but rather to the number of troops needed to train Iraqis and fight al-Qaida. But he also acknowledged that the 16-month timeline could indeed slip if removing troops risked their safety or Iraqi stability.
"What's important is to understand the difference between strategy and tactics," he told reporters. "The tactics of how we ensure our troops are safe as we pull out, how we execute the withdrawal, those are things that are all based on facts and conditions. I am not somebody — unlike George Bush — who is willing to ignore facts on the basis of my preconceived notions."
Noting that "we want to build on" the lessening of violence in Iraq, he added: "It doesn't change my strategic view that we have to bring our occupation to a close."
He said he didn't misspeak in his comments earlier in the week and suggested the media and critics read unintended significance into the remarks.
"I was surprised by how finely calibrated every single word was measured," Obama said. "I wasn't saying anything that I hadn't said before."
Obama has always said his promise to end the war would require consultations with military commanders and, possibly, flexibility.
The Illinois senator also said he and rival-turned-ally Hillary Rodham Clinton plan to help each other raise money in a series of fundraisers in New York next week.
Two events are scheduled for Wednesday night — one to raise money for his general election campaign and one to help Clinton pay off debts from her primary campaign. A third fundraiser, for Obama, is a breakfast Thursday morning with women donors that Clinton, a New York senator, will attend.
The fundraisers will be the first joint appearances by the former foes since their lovefest in Unity, N.H., on June 27.
The events were put together to showcase his campaign's commitment to helping Clinton retire her debt and her commitment to helping him get elected, Obama told reporters.
The candidate said his aides and those to former President Clinton are still arranging their first campaign appearances together. What role Bill Clinton will play in Obama's campaign has been a glaring question mark ever since the former president made comments earlier this year that Obama's supporters said injected race into the nomination contest.
"I'm looking forward to his advice and counsel and participation in the race ahead," Obama said.
Earlier Saturday, Obama took a swipe at Republican rival John McCain, saying that for "someone who has been in Washington for 30 years he's got a pretty slim record on education and when he has taken a stand it has been the wrong one."
McCain has voted against increasing funding for the No Child Left Behind law, increasing funding for Pell grants and hiring 100,000 new teachers, Obama told a Washington conference of the National Education Association that was beamed via satellite from Butte, Mont.
"He even applauded the idea of abolishing the Department of Education," Obama told the teachers' union. "In fact, the only proposal of his seems to be recycling the tired rhetoric about vouchers and school choice."
McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds responded in a statement: "Improving America's schools will take bipartisan leadership and a commitment to the issue, but Barack Obama has never spearheaded education reforms while in the U.S. Senate and has no record of working across the aisle for change."