Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) on Friday set a goal of assembling 1 million military veterans to join his presidential campaign and said that many active-duty military personnel are quietly pulling for him to defeat President Bush.
Nearing the end of an 11-day period in which he has focused exclusively on national security policy, Kerry surrounded himself with crewmates from the two Swift boats he commanded as a young naval officer in Vietnam. He accused the administration of misleading the American people before going to war in Iraq and pledged "to give Americans the truth in intelligence" if he becomes president.
Kerry said he and the veterans who have joined his campaign share a commitment to reversing policies that he said have left the United States less respected in the world and Americans less safe at home. "We're here because we understand that what we fought for is still at risk," he said at a field house on the University of Minnesota campus. "We know that the story of America is an evolving story and that every generation gets its opportunity to write part of our history. We're here because this country needs to be put back on track, to change direction and to begin to work again for everybody."
On a day when the Labor Department announced that the economy had created an additional 248,000 jobs, the presumptive Democratic nominee brushed aside the positive news and claimed that Bush's economic policies have still left a sizable deficit on the employment front and strain on families.
"Guess what: There's still 1.9 net million jobs lost over the course of this presidency," Kerry said. "There's still people who can't afford health care, who can't afford to go to college. There still are people struggling while at the top end people get ahead. I think we need to make it possible for every American to get ahead."
The continuing growth in new jobs threatens to rob Kerry and the Democrats of an important issue, but Democrats insisted Friday that, despite the new numbers, Americans remain pessimistic about the economy and have not yet felt the effects of the recovery in their own lives.
Kerry's Vietnam crewmates have become regular participants at his rallies. Friday's events were designed to signal his determination to contest the veterans' vote and to defend himself against GOP charges that he is soft on defense.
"I believe we can make America safer than we are making it today," he said. "I believe that, over the course of these last few years, the leader of the free world, the United States of America, has lost respect and influence. . . . People are questioning both our values and ideals. I intend to restore America's respect and influence."
The Kerry campaign set up a conference call in the morning with veterans in the 50 states who are helping to build a veterans cadre, and during the conversation Kerry asserted that not only veterans but also many active-duty military members want a new commander in chief. He said "you'd be amazed" at the number of active duty-personnel at his rallies "quietly coming up and saying, 'We need a change.' "
Several thousand supporters greeted Kerry with a huge ovation when he stepped into the field house, stamping their feet and chanting his name, some of them waving tiny American flags.
On stage with Kerry was former Georgia senator Max Cleland, who lost an arm and both legs in Vietnam and whose defeat in 2002 has left Democrats embittered over what they regard as a Republican strategy to challenge his patriotism because he was opposing the bill to create a homeland security department. Kerry vowed to make amends this year. "Part of this campaign is to make it clear that Max Cleland could not have left more for his country in Vietnam, could not have made a greater sacrifice," he said, "and we are going to set the record straight on November 2nd, 2004."