Sen. John Kerry says he wants to focus on winning a fourth term in the Senate this fall. But his actions indicate he's laying the groundwork for a White House campaign in 2004.

The Massachusetts Democrat has been traveling the country and raising millions of dollars, ostensibly for the Senate campaign, though he has no challenger yet. He's also hired staffers and consultants with national political experience.

"I haven't been coy about the fact that when the time comes, I would like to be in a position of strength where, if I feel I can advance the issues I care about and I've made the decision with my family, the pieces are in place," Kerry said recently when asked about running for president.

Kerry, 58, considered running in 2000 but concluded he didn't have enough time to raise the more than $20 million he thought he'd need.

Kerry said at the time that he and his wife, Heinz foods heir Teresa Heinz, decided against using their own money, which totals in the hundreds of millions of dollars. He said he would rather run on a broad base of individual supporters. Kerry doesn't take money from political action committees representing corporations, labor unions and interest groups.

Aides say Kerry brought in more than $4 million in 2001, though final figures aren't available yet. Of that, $1 million was raised through two big events: a concert with Don Henley, James Taylor and Carole King and a Wall Street fund-raiser hosted by former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

The money could be transferred to a presidential campaign if Kerry decides to run.

Kerry, a liberal-leaning Yale graduate who lives in Boston, is well-regarded on Capitol Hill. But he has an identity problem outside Massachusetts and Washington.

Kerry could look to capitalize on his expertise in international affairs, an area more in the public's consciousness since Sept. 11. He's a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee and helped lead the investigation into the Iran-Contra affair. He's also a Vietnam War veteran who led protests after returning home.

Kerry helped expose fraud and abuse at the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which was closed in 1991 after links to secret weapons deals, terrorist financing and drug-money laundering were revealed. Investigators have since learned that Osama bin Laden was among those with accounts in the bank.

"It's kind of a necessity now to have a good foreign policy background if you want to be president," said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who organized a day of events for Kerry in Washington state last summer.

On the domestic front, Kerry broke with many in his party in 1985 and supported the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction measure. He has been outspoken on environmental issues, blocking a 1995 Republican effort to loosen clean air and water regulations and leading last year's floor effort to oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Many Democrats are considering running for president in 2004. Some, including Kerry, already have visited New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary, and Iowa, home to the first presidential caucuses.

Among other Democrats who may be considering presidential runs are 2000 presidential nominee Al Gore and his running mate, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman; Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.; House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri; Govs. Howard Dean of Vermont, Gray Davis of California and Roy Barnes of Georgia; and Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware, John Edwards of North Carolina, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.

In the coming weeks, Kerry will host a reception with mayors and a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser with trial lawyers at his Washington home. He's delivering a speech on helping cities hurt by the Sept. 11 attacks and raising money in Florida, where he'll attend a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee meeting.

Kerry's also building his political team. Running his Senate campaign is Angelique Pirozzi, a protege of political consultant Michael Whouley, who consulted Gore's campaign last year and coordinated the Florida recount for it. Whouley's lieutenant, Jill Alper of Boston's Dewey Square Group, also has signed on, while venture capitalist Mark Gorenberg is helping Kerry raise money in California's Silicon Valley.

On Monday, Kerry unveiled a Web site designed by Ben Green, the former director of Web strategy for Gore's campaign.

Michael Thorsnes, a San Diego lawyer and Democratic National Committee adviser who raised $1.7 million for Gore-Lieberman, said he believes Kerry's profile-raising efforts are paying off.

He recalled that three years ago, a dozen businessmen turned out for a $500-a-head lunch with Kerry. Six weeks ago, extra tables had to be set up when 120 people showed up for a similar event, and another 450 people attended a dinner featuring Kerry that night, he said.

"For an out-of-state senator in an off year, it was unbelievable," Thorsnes said.