John Kerry (search) on Saturday urged college graduates to commit to public service, saying their participation in the Peace Corps and other programs can overcome the damage to America's image from the prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq.

"America needs your generation to surprise those who underestimate the idealism and commitment of young people in the United States of America," the Democratic presidential candidate said in remarks prepared for delivery at Southern University's (search) commencement.

"If there was ever a time when everyday people in the most deprived countries, cities and villages of the world need to see idealistic Americans working to help them, it is today when we are engaged in a struggle to win the hearts and minds of people everywhere," he said at the historically black college.

The Massachusetts senator said the Peace Corps (search) was "the most powerful symbol of nonmilitary service in our history."

Kerry acknowledged the reluctance of many young people today to enter public service, but said he was confident that can be overcome.

"I know that many of you may be skeptical, and I don't blame you," said Kerry. "It's hard to find faith and answer the call of citizenship and service when you believe today's call to arms may be tomorrow's broken promise."

A spokesman for President Bush's campaign, Steve Schmidt, said that the president often has called "young people to public service and the idealism that has been a consistent hallmark of America's youth."

Kerry said the prison abuses in Iraq "have done enormous damage to our country. They've hurt us in our objectives in Iraq, and empowered those who find fault with America."

Young people, Kerry said, can make a difference.

"It requires us to work even harder to present who we really are and if you choose to, you can help do that," Kerry said.

Kerry made the case for a new focus on the Peace Corps, noting there are only 6,700 volunteers around the world, much fewer than in the 1960s.

"Because of the day-to-day focus on just making ends meet, because of a culture that too often puts self over community, too many people have lost sight of a basic truth about America. The fact is, our greatest strength, our greatest responsibility and our greatest need today," Kerry said, are service and citizenship.

Kerry said he rejects suggestions that young people have become cynical about politics. He said many college students get involved in community projects and other volunteer activities, even while they spurn traditional political activism.

He says he can tap into that energy and bring them into the voting booth, and his campaign has focused on college campuses.

"America needs you on the front lines," Kerry said. "The fact is this kind of service will not only change every American's heart. It will change the way America works."

The Democrat said a generation of idealistic young people working in developing countries is a long-term solution to repairing the country's image.

"We need once again for young Americans to serve in all the places where we can make a difference — from the Middle East to African nations ravaged by AIDS," said Kerry.

Kerry spent Saturday meeting privately with supporters before delivering the commencement speech during his third swing in recent weeks through Louisiana, which Bush won in 2000.