John Kerry (search) introduces himself to voters in a television ad unveiled Monday, promising "a new direction for America" from a war-tested Democrat.

Titled "Fought for America," the 30-second ad airing in 17 states beginning Tuesday says Kerry has "the military experience to defend America" and the policies to improve health care and the economy.

"We need to get some things done in this country: affordable health care, rolling back tax cuts for the wealthy, really investing in our kids. That's why I'm running for president," Kerry says in the commercial, which includes footage of him emerging from the jungles of Vietnam more than 30 years ago.

The fourth-term Massachusetts senator and decorated Vietnam veteran is trying to define himself before President Bush and his GOP allies do.

The president is spending more than $6 million on broadcast TV alone to label Kerry a soft-on-terrorism, tax-raising, flip-flopping liberal. Kerry spent less than a third of that amount on his first commercial, accusing Bush of "misleading America" with negative ads.

Kerry's latest commercial, his second, contains no direct criticism of Bush. His advisers, confined to a budget of more than $2 million for the new ad, are hoping that voters will reject the White House's negative ads and learn more about the Democratic challenger who emerged from the primary season ill-defined and underfunded.

That doesn't mean Kerry or his staff have sworn off negative campaigning.

"This is our chance to say Americans have a real choice, and we don't have to define the president because the people have been living through his real and meaningful failures every day," campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill told The Associated Press.

Cahill accused Bush of running an "unprecedented negative campaign" and said, "We think he's running a huge risk."

But private polls conducted for Democrats and Republicans alike show that Bush's ads have helped lower Kerry's favorability rating. Bush accelerated his campaign effort after watching his job approval rating plummet amid a sagging economy and trouble in Iraq.

Democratic special interests groups, working independently of Kerry, are running negative ads against Bush. Taken together, the Kerry campaign and interest groups have narrowed or closed the ad gap against Bush in most major media markets.

Kerry's first ad opens with a split-screen of three images — two with Kerry in a white shirt and a tie and the third, set prominently in the middle, being grainy footage of Kerry carrying a rifle out of the Vietnam jungle.

"For 35 years, John Kerry has fought for his country," an announcer says.

The ad then fades to Kerry himself, wearing a shirt and tie, talking about health care, Bush's tax cuts and children.

Kerry's advisers believe they have to assure voters that he can keep America safe against terrorism before he can fight Bush on familiar Democratic terrain — education, jobs and health care.

As the announcer breaks in to say, "John Kerry: The military experience to defend America," a picture of Kerry receiving the Silver Star pops on screen. Pictures of Kerry talking to workers accompany the announcer talking about vague plans "to create jobs and put our economy back on track."

The ad closes with Kerry speaking with an American flag as a backdrop.