WASHINGTON -- Republican presidential contender John McCain, facing criticism from Democrats, on Thursday said he regretted using the word "wasted" to describe the more than 3,100 U.S. lives lost in the Iraq war.
"I should have used the word "sacrificed" as I have in the past," the Arizona senator said after Democrats demanded he apologize as Sen. Barack Obama did when the White House hopeful recently made the same observation.
"No one appreciates and honors more than I do the selfless patriotism of American servicemen and women in the Iraq war," McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, said in a statement.
On Wednesday night, on CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman," McCain said, "Americans are very frustrated, and they have every right to be. We've wasted a lot of our most precious treasure, which is American lives."
McCain, a staunch backer of the 4-year-old war but a critic of how President Bush has waged it, made the "wasted" remark after confirming to Letterman what has been clear for at least a year or more -- that he's in the running for the 2008 Republican nomination.
"I am announcing that I will be a candidate for president of the United States," he said -- and added that he would officially enter the race by giving a formal speech to that effect in April after a visit to Iraq.
Hours after the taped appearance aired, the Democratic National Committee called on McCain to take back the "wasted" lives remark.
"Senator McCain should apologize immediately for his callous comments," said Karen Finney, a DNC spokeswoman. "How is it that John McCain now believes American lives are being wasted, yet he so stubbornly supports the president's plan to escalate the war in Iraq and put more American lives in harms way?"
In response, McCain issued the written statement indicating he regretted his word choice. He said the U.S. is seeking to correct its mistakes with Bush's new strategy.
"We have made many mistakes in the past, and we have paid a grievous price for those mistakes in the lives of the men and women who have died to protect our interests in Iraq and defend the rest of us from the even greater threat we would face if we are defeated there," McCain said.
Obama, for his part, gave the Republican a pass when asked about McCain's comments at a Senate news conference on an unrelated matter.
"As somebody who had the same phrase in a speech, I think nobody would question Senator McCain's dedication to our veterans," said Obama, the Illinois Democrat. "We have a duty to make sure that we are honoring their sacrifice by giving them missions in which they can succeed ... I'm positive that was the intent in which he meant it. It was the same intent I had when I made my statement."
In February in Iowa, Obama said: "We ended up launching a war that should have never been authorized, and should have never been waged, and on which we've now spent $400 billion, and have seen over 3,000 lives of the bravest young Americans wasted."
Later, he told a reporter: "I was actually upset with myself when I said that, because I never use that term."
"Their sacrifices are never wasted," he said.
A four-term senator, McCain unsuccessfully ran for president in 2000 against Bush and has been laying the groundwork for a second run for more than a year. There had been little doubt that he would become a full-fledged White House candidate. He had been expected to make his candidacy official in the spring.
A former Navy pilot, he has emerged as the Senate's go-to guy on Iraq. In recent months, McCain has become Bush's most outspoken supporter of sending in another 21,500 troops to Iraq -- even though he for years has leveled strong criticism about how Bush has handled the war.