WASHINGTON – Democrats embraced John Kerry (search) as their new chief with a show of solidarity from Presidents Clinton and Carter, and former foes mending fences in an effort to oust President Bush.
"We now have a standard bearer of the Democratic Party," Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe (search) said Thursday, which the party titled "Unity Day" following a fractious primary race.
Carter, Clinton, 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore (search) and all of Kerry's primary rivals except Dennis Kucinich (search) and Carol Moseley Braun (search) were attending a celebratory dinner that was to raise more than $11 million for the DNC.
Kerry told black-newspaper publishers that his campaign will reach out in an "unprecedented fashion" and asked them to join him. "We need to build the greatest grass-roots movement in the history of this country," he said.
Kerry was endorsed by his harshest primary rival, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search), who put aside objections to the Massachusetts senator's position on tax cuts and the war in Iraq in the common cause of beating Bush.
"We had a tough campaign here," Dean said in endorsing Kerry at a George Washington University rally, noting that they once focused "on things that divide us. Now we are going to talk about the things that we have in common."
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which had backed Dean, also endorsed Kerry after a unanimous vote of the union's executive council. With 1.3 million members, AFSCME is the second-largest union in the AFL-CIO and boasts one of organized labor's largest and most savvy political operations. The United Auto Workers' executive board followed suit, one day before Kerry campaigns in Michigan.
Kucinich is the only candidate still campaigning, even though Kerry has enough delegates for the nomination. The Ohio congressman pledged in a statement to support the eventual nominee, but said he will continue to campaign for peace, universal health care and fair trade. Braun sent Kerry a letter with her regrets, citing a prior commitment.
Other candidates who challenged Kerry in the primary, including Dean, former Gen. Wesley Clark (search) and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search), have sent e-mail solicitations asking for donations to Kerry's campaign.
McAuliffe said the party, with $25 million and no debt, was better prepared than ever to challenge the GOP.
"The tools are in place," McAuliffe told the National Newspaper Publishers Association. "Now we need to make sure to use these tools to make sure that John Kerry is elected president."
Still, Kerry and his party are at a disadvantage. The Republican National Committee reported $45 million on hand at the beginning of the month and has raised more since then. Kerry reported $2.4 million and has raised roughly $20 million over the Internet since then. But Bush dwarfed him with $110 million and took in millions more at fund-raisers in recent weeks, including one Thursday in Kerry's hometown of Boston.
Democratic-leaning groups are spending millions in support of Kerry, which could help even the gap.
Kerry met privately with Dean and Dean's congressional supporters and donors before the rally. Dean asked his backers to support Kerry and not stray to the antiestablishment campaign of independent Ralph Nader (search), who has been shown in polls to pull votes from Kerry.
Bush's campaign distributed a list of criticisms that Kerry's rivals made against him during the campaign, including that he should have voted to support troops in Iraq, that he changed his position on that war and affirmative action, and that he's a Washington insider who can't pay for his programs without eliminating Bush's tax cuts.
"All of the Democratic opponents he faced during the primary said that John Kerry's numbers didn't add up in the primary and they don't add up now," said Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt. "It means a massive tax increase for middle income families."
Kerry plans a series of speeches outlining his key campaign issues and differences with Bush. He delivers the first on Friday in Detroit, which aides billed as a major policy address on jobs and Kerry's plans to create them.
Kerry believes he can make inroads against Bush on economic issues. Polls show a tight race between the two, with the senator doing best on domestic, economic matters and the Republican incumbent strongest on national security and fighting terrorism.