Continuing to build on a string of big-name endorsements, John Kerry (search) sought to broaden his message Saturday by arguing that his campaign is designed to "offer America hope and leadership."

"Strip away the labels, strip away the partisanship," Kerry told a raucous crowd of about 700 at a downtown hotel. "People in America want real solutions."

Emboldened by solid poll standings in states holding contests Tuesday, Kerry has for days been ignoring his Democratic rivals and focusing his fire on President Bush. He has gradually expanded his campaign theme to offer voters a positive message that has the ring of a general election stump.

"I pledge to you a presidency which makes America proud and respected in the world again," Kerry said.

Adding to his momentum, Kerry picked up still more backing. Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (search) and Lt. Gov. John Cherry (search) endorsed him Saturday, as did Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich.

"I'm very pragmatic," Granholm said during a satellite link with Kerry, who was in Oklahoma City. "This presidential campaign is about jobs."

"John Kerry understands what the people of Michigan know — that the country must focus on keeping and creating jobs and on strengthening the things that matter most to us," Granholm said.

While expected for days, that endorsement could carry weight in a state which caucuses on Feb. 7 with the biggest single cache of delegates to date at stake.

However, Kerry's efforts over the years to raise fuel-efficiency standards could cause him problems among some Michigan voters.

In a state that is home to the auto manufacturers, Kerry is well known for his fight to tighten these standards on cars and light trucks enough to produce a fleet average of 36 miles per gallon by 2015. That would be a dramatic increase from the current 27.5 mpg now required.

Kerry returned to Missouri Saturday for his second sweep through a state suddenly competitive after Rep. Dick Gephardt (search) dropped from the race. Polls show Kerry with a solid lead in the race for Missouri's 74 delegates, the biggest single prize at stake Tuesday.

After Missouri, Kerry was headed to Oklahoma as he carries out his pledge to campaign in all seven states holding contests Tuesday, including a stop in tiny North Dakota on Sunday. Kerry is also running television commercials in all seven states, hoping for a broad sweep that could solidify a strong hold on the nomination.

As his poll standing has solidified, Kerry's message has gotten more and more upbeat.

"I think they can hear you all the way in Karl Rove's (search) office," Kerry said, referring to Bush's top political aide. "They hear us coming. All those powerful special interests that meet in secret at the White House ... they hear us coming. We're coming and they're going."

With his front-runner status cemented, Kerry has come under increasing fire from Republicans, with top GOP leaders seeking to label him as just another Massachusetts liberal, a tactic Kerry predicted would fail.

"This is a great form of flattery," sad Kerry. "They're scared, they're worried, we're beginning to talk about the real issues in this country."

Kerry argued that voters he meets on the campaign trail aren't interested in political labels.

"They want answers not anger," said Kerry. "They want us to stand up and offer America hope and leadership. People want to move this nation forward, not backward."

There's some reason for Kerry's optimism. Polls show him with a wide lead in states with 143 of the 269 delegates at stake on Tuesday — and competitive in the rest.

Trailing along with Kerry on the campaign trail is a group of graying veterans with whom he served in Vietnam, making the case that Kerry's war-hero background insulates him from charges that he's weak on defense and other issues. He argues the true measure of patriotism is taking care of those who fight the nation's wars, an area where he said Bush comes up short.

"I'll take no second seat to anyone in my defense of this country," said Kerry. "I'm prepared to put on that uniform again to fight and die for my country again."

Bush, he said, talks tough but has a record that's lacking on key issues for veterans.

"The commander in chief also has a responsibility to the troops," said Kerry. "This president went to Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath and the very next morning the administration tried to push 1.2 million veterans off the VA (Veterans Administration)."

Kerry was seeking to lay the groundwork for his credibility on defense issues, an issue he says Bush will seek to make central to the race. Kerry argued he has far more credibility than any of his rivals on the issue.

"We need to hold him accountable for a foreign policy that has made us less safe in the world," said Kerry.