WASHINGTON – Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) was looking to shore up his support among congressional Democrats and bring another former rival into the fold. Republicans were looking for something from Kerry, too: an apology for comments they criticized as "unbecoming of a candidate for the presidency."
Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, was headed to separate meetings Thursday on Capitol Hill with House and Senate Democrats, and members of the black and Hispanic caucuses, two other Democratic groups.
He also was meeting with North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search), a colleague and former presidential rival.
Edwards aides said he planned to bring 100 of his top fund-raising backers to the meeting in what was described as a passing of the torch to Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee-in-waiting.
The get-togther with Edwards comes a day after Kerry's 45-minute session with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search). Both sides described it as upbeat and said it would lead to an eventual Dean endorsement of Kerry.
Officials familiar with the talks said the two agreed to campaign together March 25, fueling speculation that that would be when an endorsement is announced. Dean left little doubt after the meeting.
"I will work closely with John Kerry to make sure we beat George Bush in November and turn our country around," Dean, a bitter critic of Kerry during the campaign, said in a statement.
Kerry created a bit of a stir Wednesday in Chicago after he spoke via satellite to labor leaders meeting in Florida. When a supporter urged him to take on Bush, Kerry said, into a still-open microphone: "Let me tell you, we've just begun to fight. We're going to keep pounding. These guys are the most crooked, you know, lying group I've ever seen. It's scary."
President Bush's re-election campaign demanded an apology for "this negative attack."
"Senator Kerry's statement today in Illinois was unbecoming of a candidate for the presidency of the United States of America, and tonight we call on Senator Kerry to apologize to the American people for this negative attack," campaign chairman Marc Racicot (search) said in a statement. "On the day that Senator Kerry emerged as his party's presumptive nominee, the president called to congratulate him. That goodwill gesture has been met by attacks and false statements."
In response, Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said Republicans have a record of smearing their opponents and that Kerry intended the comment to show that he will fight back.
"Four years ago, John Kerry saw what the Republican attack machine did to John McCain. Two years ago, he saw what it did to Max Cleland," Cutter said, recalling the Arizona senator who challenged Bush for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000 and the Georgia Democratic senator turned out of office in 2002. "What he was saying is he's not going to take it."
In his address to AFL-CIO leaders, Kerry criticized Bush's economic policies and proposed a $50 billion fund for states to help ease the tax burden for working families that he said have been struggling.
In response, the Bush campaign accused Kerry of favoring broad tax increases that would affect all taxpayers and making campaign-trail promises that don't add up.
With the Democratic nomination in hand, Kerry — who has 2,037 of the needed 2,162 Democratic convention delegates — was shifting to more of a general election schedule, with upcoming stops in the contested battlegrounds of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. He also was planning a vacation next week after the swing, though no destination has been picked.