John F. Kerry kicked off the final month of the presidential election Saturday with a broad and blistering critique of President Bush's economic policies, warning voters in this battleground state nothing less than the "American dream" is on the ballot Nov. 2.

"Not too long ago, this dream was within reach for every single person willing to reach for it," said Kerry, who painted a portrait of an America suffering from job loss, falling wages and rising everyday costs for school, health care and transportation. "Today, for too many families, the dream is being taken away by decisions made in Washington."

In a strategic shift to highlight the economy in the run-up to Friday's domestic policy debate in St. Louis, Kerry said voters face a critical choice: a president "who gives more and more to those with the most" vs. a "new choice for the great middle class and all those struggling to join it." At the same time, the Kerry campaign pulled most of its national security ads and started running two new commercials highlighting his job creation plans.

Speaking to an enthusiastic crowd at Freedom High School, Kerry highlighted the most ominous economic data to indict Bush for ignoring troubles confronting most Americans and consistently choosing the wealthy over the worker. "That's what he stands for, that's who he stands for, that's who he fights for, and if you give him the chance, that's what he'll do for four more years," Kerry said.

Kerry was interrupted by repeated ovations, which appears to reflect a surge in optimism among Democratic voters, officials and Kerry's aides after Thursday's debate at the University of Miami. Here in Florida, newspapers were filled with articles lauding Kerry's debate performance and momentum. The mention of the word "debate" by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) sent audience members here to their feet chanting "Kerry, Kerry!"

The Democratic nominee is trying to build a case that Bush mishandled the economy much as he did Iraq, making strategic errors that left America worse off than when he took office and compounding problems by refusing to adjust policies. The goal of this twin assault on Iraq and the economy: erode the president's credibility and plant seeds of doubts about competency, aides say. "Time and time again, George Bush has proven that he's stubborn, out of touch and unwilling to change course," Kerry said.

However, unlike the debate over Iraq, in which there are few positive developments for the president to point to counter with now, Bush enters the fray over the economy armed with several upbeat statistics and policy alternatives. The economy is expanding at a relatively robust rate of about 3 percent; the unemployment rate is low by historical standards and jobs are slowly returning in most sectors; homeownership is at an all-time high; and the Dow Jones Industrial Average continues to hover around 10,000.

In a preview of the rebuttal millions of Americans will hear in the next debate, Bush on Saturday said Kerry is an advocate of big government who promises more than the federal budget will let him deliver.

The heart of the domestic policy debate is Kerry's plan to repeal tax cuts for those making $200,000 or more. From this repeal, which would generate between $800 billion and $900 billion in government revenue, flows the money for most of Kerry's new domestic programs. Bush says the tax-cut repeal will not provide enough to fund Kerry's plans, and he would be forced to raise taxes on other Americans or jettison, or at least curtail, campaign promises.

Bush is correct, independent budget analysts say. But those same analysts say the president has over-promised, too, by calling for the partial privatization of Social Security and new tax cuts. A study by The Washington Post found the promises Bush made at the Republican convention could top $3 trillion, compared with $2 trillion for Kerry's. Both candidates have vowed to cut the deficit in half over four years.

Testing lines he plans to use in the debate, Kerry said Bush has a four-year record of assisting corporations and shortchanging the rest of Americans. He pointed to a raft of undisputed trends and statistics: health care costs rising by double-digit percentages each year, 1 million jobs lost since Bush took office, 5 million added to the uninsured rolls and oil prices surging to $50 a barrel. While experts attribute many of these figures to factors outside the president's control, Kerry blamed Bush: "He'll tell you this is the best economy of our lifetime," Kerry said in a mocking tone. "Maybe that's true for his friends: Enron, Halliburton and for big oil."