The four-term Massachusetts senator and decorated Vietnam War veteran argued that President Bush's re-election campaign is trying to portray him as weak on defense by citing specific votes. But Kerry, who argued that he has voted for the largest defense and intelligence budgets in U.S. history, said he will not allow questions to be raised about his commitment to defense by Republicans "who never fought in a war."
"They're somehow stronger on defense because they embrace every (weapons) system that was ever proposed," Kerry said Monday. "That's not the measure of whether you're strong on defense."
The Bush-Cheney campaign says it is not questioning Kerry's patriotism or military service but rather his 19-year voting record in the Senate on military issues.
"Every time we have brought to light his voting record, he has responded by saying we have attacked his patriotism," said Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot in a conference call with reporters. "We have praised repeatedly his patriotism."
Asked for examples of President Bush attacking his service in Vietnam, Kerry cited published reports that the campaign plans to question his outspoken opposition to the war after he returned.
"That reflects on the service," Kerry said. "That is a reflection on me and what I chose to do."
Kerry won numerous medals for bravery and injury during the Vietnam War and has challenged Bush to a debate on their experiences during the era and the impact on their presidential vision. Bush served in the National Guard during the war and received an honorable discharge, but he's faced questions about whether he always showed up for duty.
Kerry was introduced at a rally in New York City's Harlem neighborhood Monday by Rep. Charles Rangel, a fellow veteran who said President Bush "parades around like he is a war veteran."
"When someone parades around campaigning like he is a war president, it's time for the Democratic Party to get a warrior," Rangel said.
Kerry and his supporters are eager to engage the president in a debate that would highlight his experience in the war and has accused Mr. Bush of attacking his service.
Kerry is focused on defeating his last remaining major rival, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, in the ten states that hold nominating contests on March 2, known as Super Tuesday.
Hawaii, Utah and Idaho vote on Tuesday, but Kerry and Edwards have not campaigned in those states and remain focused on next week's more delegate-rich contests.
Edwards has been concentrating on states like Georgia, Ohio and New York in the run-up to March 2 in the hope that his message on trade that helped him to a strong second-place finish in Wisconsin last week will win him more votes.
Aides to Kerry say his campaign will spend more than $1 million this week - nearly five times as much as Edwards - to run ads in Ohio, Georgia and New York, which vote March 2. Edwards has bought about $270,000 worth of ad time in those states thus far.
Edwards staffers, working with a smaller war chest than their opposites in the Kerry camp, are getting creative and have declared Tuesday to be "John Edwards Bring Your Lunch to Work Day."
The idea is for Kerry supporters to brown bag it and send the cash they save - for example, $10 for soup and a sandwich, or $75 for a "nice lunch for three" - to the Kerry campaign as donations.
President Bush has an advertising onslaught set to begin on March 4, as the dust settles from Super Tuesday. A campaign source says the Bush campaign will be buying airtime over the next two weeks in selected broadcast markets, as well as nationally on major cable channels.
In Georgia Monday, Edwards pressed his campaign in areas suffering as a result of free trade, drawing distinctions with Kerry by emphasizing his own humble origins as the son of a mill worker whose plant was forced to close.
"I've lived with this all my life," Edwards told an overflow crowd of hundreds in a train depot, as whistles wailed in the background.
He sounded the same theme earlier in the day in New York City, when he told garment workers at a union hall that in the effort to restore lost U.S. jobs, "I take this personally."
Edwards said that while he has opposed most trade liberalization treaties, Kerry has supported them. Edwards said as president he would initiate policies that would provide greater protection for American workers.
"This is something that crowd in Washington just doesn't get," he said, clearly a veiled reference to Kerry as well as to President Bush.
In a sign that Democratic leaders are unifying behind Kerry, two prominent Democratic governors - Pennsylvania's Ed Rendell and Bill Richardson of New Mexico - said Monday they expect Kerry will wrap up the nomination in the first or second week of March.