President Bush has governed in a dishonest fashion, trampling values on every issue except fighting terrorism and leaving voters "clamoring for restoration of credibility and trust in the White House again," John F. Kerry and John Edwards said in an interview.
"The value of truth is one of the most central values in America, and this administration has violated" it, Kerry said in an interview with The Washington Post aboard the Democrats' campaign plane Friday. "Their values system is distorted and not based on truth."
The Democratic nominee and his running mate said it was that kind of anger toward the president that prompted entertainers at Thursday's Democratic fundraising concert in New York to attack Bush as a "cheap thug" and a killer. "Obviously some performers, in my judgment and John's, stepped over a line neither of us believes appropriate, but we can't control that," Kerry said. "On the other hand, we understand the anger, we understand the frustration."
Edwards said scathing anti-Bush attacks such as the concert and Michael Moore's new film "Fahrenheit 9/11" reflect an "expression by folks with genuine feelings," adding, "Thank goodness in our country they have a right to express those feelings."
In one of a series of interviews since teaming up on Tuesday, Kerry and Edwards predicted they would win the political fight over which party best exemplifies the values and ethics of most Americans, but Kerry said they would wage that battle on their terms and not what he called the Republican Party's "little political, hot-button, cultural, wedge-driven, poll-driven values."
With their ties loosened and shoes kicked off, the Democratic duo also vowed to forgo negative advertising in this presidential campaign -- an assertion that draws scoffs from Republicans who note that independent Democratic groups have pounded the president with millions of dollars in negative ads.
"We have not stood up and attacked our opponents in personal ways," Kerry said.
This week alone, Kerry has criticized Bush personally in speeches for lying, professional laziness, waiting until right before the election to indict Enron Corp.'s former chief executive, Kenneth L. Lay, lacking values and even having worse hair than the two Democrats. Some advisers are privately counseling Kerry to tone down his attacks on Bush.
Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, said Kerry is firing "baseless political attacks" and "not offering a positive vision for the country."
Kerry was forceful and freewheeling during the interview, while Edwards, who appeared more drained from the intensity of their maiden voyage, was generally deferential toward the Massachusetts senator, sometimes holding back until Kerry had answered a question. When not speaking, Kerry sometimes gazed out of the window at the mountainous West Virginia landscape below.
Kerry and Edwards said they would return to the Senate to oppose a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, but only for a final vote. With debate set to begin next week on the amendment proposed by the president, Kerry emphatically reaffirmed the ticket's position that marriage is between a man and a woman.
"Let's be very firm about it. Both John and I believe firmly and absolutely that marriage is between a man and a woman," Kerry said. "But we also believe that you don't play with the Constitution of the United States for political purposes and amend the Bill of Rights when you don't need to when states are adequately addressing this issue."
Kerry, who recently said he agrees with the Roman Catholic Church that life begins at conception, said he disagrees with his church's teaching that homosexuality is a sin. Edwards twice did not respond when asked if he, too, believes life begins at conception.
With Republicans questioning Edwards's fitness to serve as a wartime president, given the fact that he has less than six years of government experience, Kerry defended his vice presidential pick as more qualified for the job than Bush.
"Don't get suckered into the how many years you've been in one job or this job" debate, Kerry said. "You've got people in [Washington] who have been in one job [for] 30 years of what you call experience, and they have done nothing, they don't stand for anything and they don't know how to fight."
The measure of a leader, he said, is a "person's character, a person's values, a person's abilities and political skills and ability to work with other people and bring people to a cause." Kerry called this the "character of toughness."
Yet it was Kerry himself who challenged Edwards's readiness during the Democratic primary elections, saying it's not a time for "on-the-job training." He mocked Edwards's youthfulness -- the vice presidential candidate is 51 -- and later asked aides what made Edwards think he was ready for the presidency.
"I challenged my level of experience against his, as I will challenge my level of experience against George Bush's and Dick Cheney's," Kerry said. "That was a fair challenge . . . in the context of the primaries. But that doesn't mean [Edwards] isn't qualified against George Bush."
Kerry added, "Does [Edwards] have as much experience as me? No. But I am running for president; he's running for vice president."
Edwards, a first-term senator from North Carolina, who has served on the intelligence committee for more than five years but who has rarely been in Washington since launching his presidential bid in 2003, said his work on national security matters and terrorism qualifies him for the role of commander in chief.
"I'm ready today," he said.
During the Democratic primaries, Edwards did not make national security a central focus of his campaign. "I believe I had during that time very creative ideas about what needs to be done to protect America's role in the world," including championing efforts to fight terrorism and thwart weapons proliferation, he said.
Edwards noted, however, that he will do everything he can to reassure people of his capacity to handle the job. "I have an obligation to the American people to work 18 hours a day . . . to make sure that every day I know more than I did the day before," he said. "I feel that responsibility [and] take it very, very seriously."
Edwards's chief focus will be the messages of values and economic disparity. Kerry's advisers said Edwards will be dispatched to towns and rural communities in the Midwest and South, probably starting in Iowa, to target voters Democrats often overlook in presidential campaigns.
Asked whether he will play the traditional role of a vice presidential nominee and lead the Democratic attack on Bush and Cheney, Edwards said, "I will fulfill my responsibility to make sure people know what we will do, how we will govern, and what the differences are between us and this administration."
The two plan to frame the debates over issues from war to welfare as a choice of American values. In their words, it is a stark choice between Bush, who they say favors unilateralism abroad and the rich back home, against a Democratic ticket that believes in working closely with allies overseas and taking tax cuts away from the wealthy to help everyone else.
The new twist in this populist approach is the heavy focus on values for a Democratic ticket. "It's the heart of our campaign," Kerry said. "It's the center of what matters in America, it's why we are running."
Kerry added, "The battles of this administration do not represent the values of America -- with the sole exception, which we all share, of our determination to defeat terrorism and to stand up after 9/11 to that attack."
Edwards suggested Bush's career is not reflective of American values, either.
"George Bush and others can say whatever they want now about what their values are, but what have they spent their life doing? Have they shown in their life experience, not just in the time they've been in politics, but in their life experience, that they have the values that Americans looked up to and respected?" Edwards asked. "It's just difficult for me to imagine anybody in my little home town in rural North Carolina looking up to and respecting someone more than John Kerry."