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Democrats pounce on Bush uranium statement

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Democrats see a weak spot and they're pouncing.

President Bush delivering his State of the Union address in January.
President Bush delivering his State of the Union address in January.

The White House opened itself to a barrage of criticism when it confirmed that the president's assertion in his State of the Union address that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa was based on unsubstantiated, and possibly false, information.

Speaking with me on Inside Politics Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, "We have to get to the bottom of this. It's a very important thing. We are in an era where you cannot say wrong things that give wrong impressions because everything is so fragile and on such a hair trigger."

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle echoed the sentiment Tuesday, cautioning against a rush to judgment but urging that "this ought to be reviewed very carefully... with regard to what it was we knew, what actions were taken, what statements were correct, and which ones were incorrect. The sooner we can acquire that information the better for the country."

Other Democrats took a harder line, charging that the White House admission adds fuel to speculation that the administration manipulated intelligence information to justify the war in Iraq.

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska told me Tuesday, "I just think they've made a terrible mistake, at least leaving the impression that if the boss wants the conclusion to be A, you're going to deliver intelligence in order for that conclusion to be A, because that's what he wants."

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer dismissed the controversy, saying there's "zero, nada, nothing new here."

Fleischer insisted the administration had "long acknowledged the information was incorrect." Still, he was quick to add that the administration didn't know the information was wrong before the president's speech.

Fleischer maintains that the president's overall contention that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction has not been undermined. "I see nothing that goes broader that would indicate that there was no basis for the president's broader statement," he said.

The White House also got support from Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who said, "The administration I think has been very forthright...I think they had the best information that they thought was reliable at the time the president said it."

But the Democratic piling-on has just begun.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe thundered, "This may be the first time in recent history that a president knowingly misled the American people during the State of the Union...It was not a mistake. It was no oversight and it was no error."

And Democratic presidential contenders released a series of smirking statements:

Congressman Richard Gephardt of Missouri declared that Bush needs to rein in his rhetoric. "This president has a pattern of using excessive language in his speeches and off-the-cuff remarks. This continued recklessness represents a failure of presidential leadership," he said.

Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, a relentless critic of the administration's intelligence operation, says the whole thing begs one question: "Mr. President, what else don't we know?"

Judy Woodruff is CNN's prime anchor and senior correspondent. She also anchors "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics," weekdays at 3:30 pm ET.

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