Josh Marshall provides the full context of Bush's second comment where he expressed his opinion that bin Laden had become irrelevant:
Q But don't you believe that the threat that bin Laden posed won't truly be eliminated until he is found either dead or alive?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, as I say, we haven't heard much from him. And I wouldn't necessarily say he's at the center of any command structure. And, again, I don't know where he is. I -- I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him. I know he is on the run. I was concerned about him, when he had taken over a country. I was concerned about the fact that he was basically running Afghanistan and calling the shots for the Taliban.
But once we set out the policy and started executing the plan, he became -- we shoved him out more and more on the margins. He has no place to train his al Qaeda killers anymore. And if we -- excuse me for a minute -- and if we find a training camp, we'll take care of it. Either we will or our friends will. That's one of the things -- part of the new phase that's becoming apparent to the American people is that we're working closely with other governments to deny sanctuary, or training, or a place to hide, or a place to raise money.
And we've got more work to do. See, that's the thing the American people have got to understand, that we've only been at this six months. This is going to be a long struggle. I keep saying that; I don't know whether you all believe me or not. But time will show you that it's going to take a long time to achieve this objective. And I can assure you, I am not going to blink. And I'm not going to get tired. Because I know what is at stake. And history has called us to action, and I am going to seize this moment for the good of the world, for peace in the world and for freedom.
We can see that this isn't a mistaken comment but, rather, part of a coherent position: Bin Laden doesn't have a government that can help him or as large of a support network, so we just aren't going to worry too much about him anymore. We don't completely ignore him, of course, and we still hope to catch him — but he's also not going to be the focus of our anti-terrorism, efforts, either.
Agree or disagree with it, that was his position on March 13, 2002 during a press conference where he justified the build-up to the war on Iraq.
Now, here is the transcript from the third debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry:
KERRY: Yes. When the president had an opportunity to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, he took his focus off of them, outsourced the job to Afghan warlords, and Osama bin Laden escaped.
Six months after he said Osama bin Laden must be caught dead or alive, this president was asked, "Where is Osama bin Laden?" He said, "I don't know. I don't really think about him very much. I'm not that concerned."
We need a president who stays deadly focused on the real war on terror.
SCHIEFFER: Mr. President?
BUSH: Gosh, I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. It's kind of one of those exaggerations.
This is important for two reasons. First, it is directly related to one of John Kerry's arguments against Bush, namely that in waging war on Iraq he stepped away from the real problem (terrorists like Osama bin Laden) in favor of someone who just wasn't as immediately important in terms of keeping America safe (Saddam Hussein). Insofar as George W. Bush currently believes that American should not "not be worried" about Osama bin Laden, it would appear that he agrees with Kerry's accusation — that it was a bad idea to adopt the position of not being concerned with bin Laden.
Second, this is directly related to one of the most common complaints about George W. Bush: his rather ambiguous relationship with truth, facts, and reality. One should expect Bush to know whether he adopted the position that Osama bin Laden was still relevant or not and, if he did, then he lied in the debate. If he really didn't know that he had adopted that position, then he is so disconnected from his own thoughts and policies that it's difficult to understand how he can cope with the power and authority of the presidency. Remember, this wasn't a throw-away or casual comment back in 2002 — it was policy.
Chris Suellentrop writes for Slate:
By denying that he had ever minimized the threat posed by Bin Laden, Bush handed Kerry, during the very first question, the victory in the post-debate spin. The Kerry campaign's critique of the president is that he has doesn't tell the truth, that he won't admit mistakes, and that he refuses to acknowledge reality. Bush's answer played into all three claims. Within minutes, the Kerry-Edwards campaign e-mailed reporters the first of its "Bush vs .Reality" e-mails, complete with a link to the official White House transcript. A half-hour later, the Democratic National Committee circulated the video.
This was indeed a gift to the Kerry campaign. Dick Cheney made some serious errors (or outright lies) during his debate with John Edwards, but none with as much substance and relevancy as this one. There were others, like Bush's claim that most of his tax cuts went to the middle class, but this is the one that makes for the best press and best sound bites.