John F. Kerry returned to his birthplace in nearby Aurora on Friday to kick off a six-day, six-state march to accept the Democratic nomination and to offer voters a more personal message about values and a plan for service.
With running mate John Edwards by his side for the last time before they reunite next week at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Kerry paid homage to the suburban city where he was born 61 years ago and lived for the first four months of his life.
"This fits: starting the journey at the place that gave me my start," Kerry told more than 3,000 Democrats at the Fillmore auditorium. "I've always been proud that I can claim I have at least some roots in the West."
Kerry, the son of a diplomat who called more than two dozen cities on two continents home as a child, said Aurora captures the "Main Street values" and "boundless sense of optimism" that imbue America. With advisers worried that voters know little about Kerry personally, the Massachusetts senator said his mother and his father, a pilot in World War II, taught him about faith, family and responsibility.
"My father helped me understand at an early age that we are all put on this Earth for something greater than ourselves," Kerry said. "That's why I'm here; that's why I'm running for president."
Kerry sought to create a hopeful portrait of his campaign, surrounding himself with his family and Edwards's young, telegenic children, and speaking before a banner that read "Family and Service." Gone were the harsh, rapid-fire attacks on President Bush.
Much as John F. Kennedy did more than two score years ago, Kerry called on Americans to follow his lead and serve their country, if not in uniform, then in service to the needy and the young. "We all have a responsibility to serve," said Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran. "But it's up to us to give everyone who can contribute the chance to be able to do so." To this end, Kerry for the first time proposed spending $10 million each year on a national service program to "support a new generation of social entrepreneurs who are engaged in new and creative ways to serve America."
As president, Kerry said, he would provide 100 $100,000 grants to people who come up with ways to serve their communities. The recipients would first be required to match the federal grant with private money, most likely from a business or philanthropic organization. The government portion would be funded by lowering federal subsidies to banks offering student loans. Critics warn this could result in fewer banks offering guaranteed loans.
This grant program, which Kerry called the Citizen Patriots Fund, comes on top of his proposal to allow 200,000 students tuition assistance in exchange for committing two years to teaching, helping provide homeland security or participating in other volunteer programs.
In Washington, the Kerry campaign announced the candidate had topped $200 million in fundraising, six times the previous record for a Democratic presidential candidate. The campaign also announced Kerry will use $6.4 million to repay a loan he made to his campaign in late 2003. Kerry mortgaged his Boston home to finance the loan that helped him win the Iowa caucuses in January -- and clinch the nomination.
With his emphasis on family and service here, aides said, Kerry is seeking to present a softer image of the ticket heading into the Democratic convention and more fully introduce himself to voters.
After the rally, Kerry toured the Fitzsimons Army Hospital Medical Center in Aurora, where he was born and where his father recovered from a bout with tuberculosis. "I started making noise in here, and I'm still making noise," Kerry said as he looked around the former nursery, now an empty room.
The Kerry camp on Friday released the third television ad featuring Edwards and the second in which the North Carolina senator speaks to the camera, an unusually prominent role for a running mate. Edwards depicts his partner as a war hero: "Here's some things about John Kerry you may not know. He volunteered for Vietnam, earned three Purple Hearts and risked his own life to save others. A family man, a person of strong faith."
With polls showing the race tied and many voters still uncertain about or unfamiliar with Kerry, the Democratic candidate is trying to blend the optimism of Kennedy, the can-do spirit of Lewis and Clark, and the call for national unity of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
At times, though, Kerry seemed to be scrambling to hit the right note. The room was packed with reminders of his many slogans: the Real Deal; a Stronger America; Family and Service; and Stronger at Home, Respected in the World. His message went from service to values and optimism, back to a list of government programs begging for change or expansion and back again to a "can-do" America.
"Everything is on the line," he said. "Our health care is on the line. Our jobs are on the line. Our children's futures are on the line. The Supreme Court of the United States is on the line. America's role in the world is on the line."
Kerry and Edwards kept the crowd waiting more than an hour in the stuffy, dark and crowded auditorium because Teresa Heinz Kerry's flight was delayed. She strolled onto the stage several minutes after the Kerry and Edwards families jointly arrived.
Edwards said jokingly that Colorado is the birthplace of the cheeseburger, the rodeo and "the next president of the United States."
This was the first time Kerry and Edwards shared a stage in a national forum since their introductory tour earlier in the month. After much public comment and many late-night jokes about their touchy-feely encounters, the men were far more reserved in their exuberance Friday -- hugging only once.
Staff writers Thomas B. Edsall and Howard Kurtz in Washington contributed to this report.