Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts said yesterday he will file the necessary papers this week allowing him to raise money for a possible run for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2004.

Kerry said a formal announcement of a candidacy "is down the road some months. . . . I hope, indeed, I'll be able to do that." He made the statements on NBC's "Meet the Press" but had hinted at an impending filing on another show several weeks ago.

Recently reelected to a fourth Senate term, Kerry is the second Democrat to take the formal steps with the Federal Election Commission to begin a primary campaign. The other is Howard Dean, a physician now in his second term as governor of Vermont.

Kerry, who will turn 59 next week, was a gunboat officer in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War. He was decorated and wounded, and later became an outspoken critic of the war.

"I think on almost every issue, literally on almost every issue facing the country, I believe there is a better choice for this nation," he said on "Meet the Press." In a nearly hour-long interview, he was critical of numerous Bush administration policies, including aspects of the campaign against Iraq, the war against al Qaeda, and the tax cut now being phased in over a decade.

Of a possible showdown with Iraq arising from the current United Nations inspections for illegal weapons, he said: "The United States of America should not go to war because it wants to go to war; we should go to war because we have to go to war." He added that he opposes an invasion whose purpose is "regime change without regard to the legitimacy of the inspection process or the legitimacy of the United Nations process itself."

He was asked whether he would support an attack on Iraq if the Bush administration concludes that country is in "material breach" of its disarmament agreement but other members of the Security Council do not.

He said that if there was consensus among both parties in Congress and the president that such a breach exists, he doubted it would be difficult to convince the Security Council. Pressed further, he said: "I would be willing to support the president, providing there is an imminent threat that has been shown and that the breach reaches the standard that we all agree on."

He said he believed the U.S. military "made a bad decision" in the way it fought al Qaeda and sought its leader, Osama bin Laden, in Afghanistan after the Taliban was defeated, but he did not elaborate.

On other foreign affairs issues, Kerry said that Israel's settlements on the West Bank must be part of a Middle East peace agreement, but that Israel should not give them up "unilaterally and before the fact." He said he would not negotiate directly with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, adding that "I think that you have to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, with new leadership, hopefully."

In domestic matters, Kerry said he favored stopping further implementation of the Bush tax cut, "most of which goes to the wealthiest Americans -- because we simply can't afford it." However, he said he favors a reduction in the payroll tax, which will "put more money in the pocket of the middle class and average worker of our nation now than the tax cut proposed by President Bush."

He said he supports universal health care for Americans, but opposes a single-payer system similar to Canada's. (Al Gore, the last Democratic candidate for president, recently said he has "reluctantly" come to believe that a single-payer system is the best solution to the problem of 40 million Americans without medical insurance.) Kerry said he favors an expansion of employer-based health insurance instead.

Kerry said he believes smallpox vaccination should be made available to all Americans who want it "as rapidly as possible, notwithstanding we understand there are some risks to it."

In addition to his service in the Senate, Kerry was lieutenant governor of Massachusetts for two years, and was a prosecutor. He first came to public attention as co-founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Besides Dean and Gore, other possible Democratic candidates for the presidential nomination include Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.); House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.); Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.); and Sen. John Edwards (N.C.).