MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. — MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. - Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, surrounded by symbols of his service in Vietnam, officially started his presidential campaign yesterday with a harsh indictment of President Bush - and a newly combative edge toward Howard Dean, the rival who has surged to the forefront of the 2004 Democratic race.
Overall, Kerry's speech did more to recapitulate than redefine the case he has made for his candidacy in the past year. But by drawing a succession of contrasts with Dean on taxes, gun control and foreign policy, the address outlined the arguments Kerry is hoping will allow him to capture the initiative from the former Vermont governor.
The speech's setting sought to dramatize the military record that Kerry believes will be one of his central campaign advantages. He spoke in a park that houses the USS Yorktown, an aircraft carrier that was deployed in Vietnam, where Kerry won a Silver and a Bronze star as the captain of a Navy gunboat. On the podium in front of Kerry was a placard that read: "The Courage to Do What's Right for America."
Kerry, 59, was forceful in delivering his remarks. But apart from the stress on his military service, the speech mostly reprised themes common to all of the Democratic contenders: more reliance on allies in fighting terrorism, a rollback of Bush's economic policy, and increased focus on environmental protection and the development of renewable energy sources.
"I am running so we can keep America's promise - to reward the hard work of middle-class Americans ... to restore our true strength in the world, which comes from ideals, not arrogance; [and] to renew the commitment of our generation to pass this planet on to our children better than it was given to us," Kerry declared to about 300 supporters who gathered to hear him on a steamy morning.
For Kerry, serving his fourth term in the Senate, the speech came at a critical moment. At the start of this year, he was widely viewed as the most likely candidate to emerge as the leader in the initial stages of the Democratic race. But the candidate claiming the front-runner mantle this summer has been Dean, who has moved past Kerry in fund-raising and in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two contests on the nomination calendar.
Although he never mentioned his fellow New Englander by name and avoided the personal rancor that characterized some of their exchanges earlier this year, Kerry underscored his differences with Dean on the issues of taxes, gun control and the war in Iraq.
Dean and another of the major Democratic candidates, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, have called for rescinding all of the tax cuts Bush has pushed through Congress. Kerry wants to repeal only the reductions in the top two income tax rates, which would affect families earning about $200,000 a year or more.
As he has in several other recent speeches, Kerry said that revoking all of the Bush tax cuts would amount to a $2,000-a-year tax increase on middle-class families. "That's wrong," he insisted. "The last time I looked in America the problem was not that the middle class has too much money."
Dean has said he opposes most proposals to toughen federal gun control laws, saying it's an issue best left to states. He also notes praise he has received from the National Rifle Association, based on his gubernatorial record in Vermont. Kerry said Democrats must continue to confront the NRA on gun control. "Courage means standing up for gun safety, not retreating from the issue out of political fear or trying to have it both ways," he said. "Our party will never be the choice of the NRA - and I'm not looking to be the candidate of the NRA."
While Dean argues that the war in Iraq was misguided - a position that fueled much of his early support - Kerry defended his decision to vote for the resolution that provided congressional approval for the military action Bush launched in March. But he continued to deliver a message on the war that stressed criticism of Bush as much as support.
Kerry said: "I voted to threaten the use of force to make [former Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein comply with the resolutions of the United Nations. I believe that was right - but it was wrong to rush to war without building a true international coalition - and with no plan to win the peace."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.