MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. – Breaking with tradition, John Kerry (search) on Tuesday officially launched his campaign for the presidency far from home.
But the Massachusetts senator maintained a long-held pattern of accusing President Bush of destroying the economy and alienating allies over the war in Iraq.
Against the backdrop of the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, docked in South Carolina, Kerry emphasized his Vietnam experience as he explained why he would be a better wartime president than Bush.
"I reject George Bush's new vision of a government that comforts the comfortable at the expense of ordinary Americans," said Kerry. "George Bush's vision does not live up to the America I enlisted in the Navy to defend.
"In challenging times we need leadership that knows how to make America safer, that knows how to put America back to work," he added. "The president has misled America and he has made our path more difficult as a result."
Presidential candidates usually make their presidential announcements in their home states or in the first caucus and primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
• Video: Kerry Announces his Candidacy
Questions have risen whether Kerry, who is trailing former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search) in the polls, went south to try to capture an early primary state where Dean doesn't have strong support. But Kerry is only running fourth — at 6 percent — in South Carolina, according to an American Research poll.
"Howard Dean got the jump on everybody basically by being the most clearly anti-Bush of all the Democratic candidates," Roll Call editor Mort Kondracke told Fox News. "[Kerry] has said now that he is going to enunciate a message that is clear as a bell in leadership, but he has not been clear as a bell up to now. He has waffled on the war, for example, and his tax position is a responsible one, but it is less anti-Bush than Howard Dean."
Adding to his image of a wartime hero, the highly-decorated Kerry, who returned from Vietnam to lead Vietnam Veterans Against the War (search), was introduced Tuesday by fellow Vietnam veteran and former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland (search). Onstage were crew members of the Navy gunboat Kerry commanded in Vietnam.
It was all part of Kerry's core argument that his military experience gives him unique credibility among the Democratic contenders to confront Bush on foreign policy issues.
He also attacked Bush for squandering not only the good will of the world after Sept. 11, 2001, but the budget surplus.
"I reject George Bush’s radical new vision of a government that comforts the comfortable at the expense of ordinary Americans, that lets corporations do as they please, that turns its back on the very alliances we helped create and the very principles that have made our nation a model to the world for over two centuries," Kerry said.
"I am running so we can keep America's promise — to reward the hard work of middle-class Americans and pull down the barriers that stand in their way and in the way of those struggling to join them," he added.
Kerry attacked Dean and his other eight rivals for the Democratic nomination, suggesting dovishness would not help the United States as it seeks to rid the world of terrorism. Without naming them directly, Kerry also suggested the other Democratic hopefuls do not have the vision needed to strengthen the U.S. economy.
"Some in my party want to get rid of all tax cuts — including those for working families," he said. "That's wrong. We need to be on the side of America's middle class and I've proposed a tax cut for them because it's the right way to strengthen our economy."
While Kerry was making his announcement, several of his opponents were seeking to upstage him. Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (search) was giving a health care policy speech. Dean, who is leading in the polls, has added six news states to his advertising blitz, bringing his campaign ads to 10 states total. Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt (search) also started his first television ads Tuesday.
Kerry has dismissed criticism that he should be taking on Dean directly. He has said that he is where he wants to be right now, cranking up his campaign just as voters begin to focus on the campaign season.
"America is only just beginning to listen," Kerry said Monday. "That's why I'm announcing my campaign now and that's why the polls don't mean anything today."
Kerry offered a broad vision with few hard policy explanations, but he did hit on several topics that he would pursue as president -- cleaning up the environment, reducing dependence on Middle East oil, scouring the tax code to eliminate breaks for large corporations and nominating Supreme Court justices who uphold a woman's access to abortion.
After South Carolina, Kerry was headed to Iowa and New Hampshire whose caucus and primary voters go to the polls on Jan. 19 and Jan. 27 respectively. He then heads to Boston and a hometown rally.
Kerry, 59, won a fourth term in the Senate without major-party opposition last year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.