ROANOKE, Va. – John Kerry (search) ignored rivals chasing him in the Democratic presidential race Monday and lambasted President Bush's foreign policy, telling voters in Tuesday's Southern primaries they are "choosing a leader of the free world."
Kerry is hoping that wins in Virginia and Tennessee will cement his status as the Democratic front-runner and fatally wound the campaigns of Wesley Clark (search) and John Edwards (search). Both have campaigned on their appeal in the South, but the two are trailing Kerry in polls of the two states.
Speaking in front of a Roanoke firehouse, Kerry suggested that Bush has not provided the international leadership that the world expects from the United States.
"You are choosing tomorrow not just a president of the United States," Kerry said. "You have the privilege of having an impact on the lives of people all over this planet because you are choosing a leader of the free world."
Kerry said the president should have negotiated with North Korea and worked on an improved global-warming treaty. He said Bush has walked away from the Middle East peace process, choosing to "dabble in it here and there and now and then." He accused Bush of "dilly-dallying" in the global AIDS problem.
"We deserve a president who understands that working with the rest of the world is not weakness," the Massachusetts senator said. "It's strength."
Bush spokesman Scott Stanzel fired back by criticizing Kerry's record.
"We honor Senator Kerry's patriotic service during the Vietnam War, yet we question his votes to consistently cut defense and intelligence funding, his vote against the first Gulf War and his recently stated belief that the war on terror is about law enforcement," Stanzel said.
Kerry is the champion of 10 of the 12 states that have voted so far, including three wins over the weekend. Edwards and Clark have won one election each while former front-runner Howard Dean remains without a victory.
Kerry also campaigned Monday night in Memphis, where he said he was marking "the beginning of the end of the Bush presidency."
"Tomorrow in Tennessee, Tennessee gets an opportunity to register that sense of possibilities about the future and their anger about the past," he said. "We are going to reject the cynicism and the radical direction this administration is taking us."
Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, said he has the experience for international leadership after serving nearly 20 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said his book on terrorism predicted the fallout from a large attack before Sept. 11, 2001.
"I remember what it was like to carry an M-16 in another country thousands of miles away and to not be able to tell the difference between who was trying to kill me and who wasn't, who was my friend and who was my foe," he said. "I learned about a lot of questions a president ought to ask before you send young people into harm's way."
Kerry also criticized the record of job loss under Bush and questioned an upbeat annual economic report released Monday by the White House.
"I've got a feeling this report was prepared by the same people who brought us the intelligence on Iraq," Kerry said to laughter from the crowd.
Kerry plans to roll back the Bush tax cuts on people who earn more than $200,000 a year to pay for health care, jobs programs and other priorities. He said if Bush wants to call that a tax increase, he welcomes the debate.
"I'm calling it rolling back George Bush's tax cut for wealthy Americans that has been bum rushed through the Congress," Kerry told reporters in Memphis. "He can call it what he wants. I call it fairness for all Americans."