CHARLESTON, S.C. – Facing a pivotal moment in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, John Kerry (search) worked until the last minute on the speech that will formally launch his candidacy. The 11th-hour move exposed the divisions within his own team over the campaign's direction.
Once considered the front-runner, Kerry now trails Howard Dean (search) in New Hampshire and is bunched at the top of the field with Dick Gephardt (search) and Dean in Iowa. Dean has gained traction with his anti-Washington establishment campaign, which has proven costly for lawmakers such as Kerry and Gephardt.
Dean's surge has revealed a split among Kerry's advisers, with some aides calling for aggressive tactics while others urge caution, fearing that harsh attacks would alienate the new voters Dean has attracted to the Democratic Party.
Kerry dismissed the poll results, saying "they don't mean anything today" because voters are only beginning to pay attention, and that's why he chose to officially announce his campaign after Labor Day.
"America is just beginning to listen," said Kerry.
Critics, including some prominent Democrats, have argued that Kerry needs to change his approach to counter Dean's growth in the polls.
Kerry's aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the candidate was more involved in the crafting of the speech, which would reflect his personal view on the campaign's direction. Some of Kerry's critics have said the campaign is bloated with too many aides and advisers.
The Massachusetts senator launches a high-profile swing formally announcing his campaign for the Democratic nomination on Tuesday, and that closely watched speech likely will signal who has won the internal campaign debate.
The choice Kerry faces is similar to what former Vice President Al Gore had to deal with before the 2000 election. Gore relocated his campaign to Nashville, Tenn., and pared back his staff when his campaign faltered early.
After losing the New Hampshire primary to Republican John McCain, George W. Bush switched his message 180 degrees.
At the center of Kerry's claim for the nomination is that his decorated Vietnam War-hero past gives him credibility beyond any other Democratic candidate in challenging Bush's national security record. Some aides argued for him to broaden that theme; it was certain to be the centerpiece of his announcement.
Kerry was scheduled to deliver his speech against the backdrop of the mammoth aircraft carrier USS Yorktown in the harbor at Charleston, S.C. At his side would be members of the gunboat crew he commanded in Vietnam's Mekong Delta.
While Kerry voted last October to authorize the use of military force in Iraq, he has been critical of Bush's handling of the conflict, particularly for failing to enlist the help of other nations.
In recent weeks, Kerry has moved to spell out his positions on issues ranging from health care to the economy to protecting veterans, but he was reserving his high-profile announcement swing for an "overarching vision" of where he would take the country, aides said.
After South Carolina, where Democrats vote on the third week of the nominating season, Kerry was headed to Iowa where precinct caucuses occur Jan. 19. On the second day of his announcement swing, Kerry heads to New Hampshire, which has tentatively has set its primary for Jan. 27, before heading home to Boston and a hometown rally.
Kerry will need all the attention he can get as part of his effort to curb significant momentum that's been generated by former Vermont Gov. Dean. Polls have shown Dean leading Kerry by 21 points in New Hampshire.
Seeking to blunt that momentum, Kerry has increasingly been critical of Dean on issues like Dean's backing for the repeal of all of President Bush's tax cuts, including portions which aid middle-income workers.
"Real Democrats don't raise taxes on the middle class," Kerry argues.
Kerry, 59, won a fourth term in the Senate without major-party opposition last year.