By Associated Press
The one-time favorite issues challenges to President Bush, and takes veiled swipes at the new Democratic front- runner, Howard Dean.
MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. - Democrat John Kerry, seeking to regain his political footing, formally launched his presidential candidacy Tuesday by offering his Vietnam War-hero credentials and Senate tenure as an alternative to President Bush's record.
"Every day of this campaign, I will challenge George Bush for fundamentally taking our country in the wrong direction," Kerry told the crowd on a steamy morning. "George Bush's vision does not live up to the America I enlisted in the Navy to defend."
The stars-and-stripes announcement with the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown as a backdrop and Kerry's wartime comrades at his side comes at a critical juncture for the four-term Massachusetts senator. Once viewed as the Democratic front-runner in the crowded field of nine, Kerry saw that perception evaporate in the heat of party rival Howard Dean's summer surge.
The political free-fall has prompted a fresh round of finger-pointing in Kerry's deeply divided campaign and has the candidate considering a staff shakeup, the Associated Press reported, citing several campaign officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Later Kerry issued a terse statement after meeting with top aides.
"I have confidence in my campaign," Kerry said. "I have assembled a great team that is going to beat George W. Bush, and any rumors to the contrary are completely erroneous and there will be no changes."
The tone of Kerry's speech, in fact, was the subject of fierce internal debate within the campaign over whether to focus on the candidate's resume and Bush's performance, or lambaste Dean. The former Vermont governor has grabbed a hefty 21-point lead over Kerry in the latest New Hampshire poll, a crucial state for the two New Englanders. Dean has built momentum with his antiwar, anti-Washington themes and successfully tapped the Internet for fundraising and supporters.
Kerry opted to devote much of his speech to his military service, years as Massachusetts senator and Bush's record on the economy, the environment and national security. He did take a few subtle swipes at Dean.
"Some in my party want to get rid of all tax cuts, including those for working families," he said. "That's wrong. We need to be on the side of America's middle class and I've proposed a tax cut for them because it's the right way to strengthen our economy."
Dean favors a repeal of all of Bush's tax cuts.
Kerry also alluded to Dean's opposition to broadening gun-control laws, which has made his campaign more acceptable to groups such as the National Rifle Association.
"Our party will never be the choice of the NRA and I'm not looking to be the candidate of the NRA," Kerry said. "Courage means standing up for gun safety, not retreating from the issue out of political fear."
En route to Iowa, Kerry told reporters that he did not mention his rivals by name because it wasn't appropriate for an announcement speech.
"Certainly there's a lack of awareness on where the candidates stand," said Kerry, who promised to sharpen those difference in the coming days, including Thursday during the Democratic presidential debate in New Mexico.
At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan declined to respond to Kerry's criticism of Bush, saying, "I think I'll leave the politics to the Democrats in their primary. The president's continuing to focus on the people's business."
Kerry's speech was written by the senator and Democratic consultant Bob Shrum with little input from the rest of his staff. Shrum, who joined the campaign in recent months, has been at odds with other senior aides who put the early pieces of Kerry's campaign together.
At his announcement, Kerry was joined by crew members of a Navy gunboat he commanded in Vietnam, where he won a Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. Introducing Kerry was former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam combat. It is all part of Kerry's core argument that his military experience gives him unique credibility among the nine Democratic contenders to confront Bush on national security issues.
Shortly after the speech, Kerry embarked on a three-state swing that took him to Iowa, and ends with appearance in New Hampshire and at Boston's famed Faneuil Hall on Wednesday.
Months ago, Kerry made clear his intention to seek the party's nomination, and he attracted a great deal of attention from the Democratic establishment. John Forbes Kerry has the initials of a one-time Democratic president - JFK - and a comparable pedigree - Ivy League education, commander of a small Navy craft during wartime and Massachusetts senator.
In October, he voted for the congressional resolution authorizing Bush to use military force in Iraq, but he has been sharply critical of the president's diplomatic efforts and stirred controversy earlier this year when he said that the United States needed a "regime change."JOHN FORBES KERRY
AGE; BIRTH DATE: 59; Dec. 11, 1943.
EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree, Yale University, 1966; law degree, Boston College, 1976.
EXPERIENCE: Navy officer, awarded Silver Star, Bronze Star with Combat "V," three Purple Hearts for Vietnam War service, 1966-70; spokesman, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, 1971; Middlesex County, Mass., prosecutor, 1976-78; lawyer in private practice, 1979-1982; Massachusetts lieutenant governor, 1983-85; U.S. Senate, 1985-present.
FAMILY: Wife, Teresa Heinz; two children, three stepchildren.