John Edwards (search) told liberal activists Thursday that despite President Bush's frequent speeches about fighting for freedom they should remember that "freedom does not belong to one political party."

The Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2004 also said the idea of America standing for freedom is not new.

Edwards made the comments to the annual "Take Back America" gathering of liberal activists sponsored by the Campaign for America's Future. The group gave Edwards its top award, named after Thomas Paine, the writer and activist from the Revolutionary War era who wrote about economic injustice among many topics.

"While we're working on democracy over there (in Iraq), we've got more work to do on democracy right here," said Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina.

"How about if we actually build the best election system money can buy so that people don't have any doubt they will be able to vote, they will be able to vote quickly and they will have absolutely no doubt their vote was counted properly?" Edwards said.

He scoffed at critics who say they don't know what the Democratic Party stands for.

"Don't tell me the Democrats don't stand for anything," Edwards said. "We do actually believe everybody should have a chance to do well. We believe we have a moral responsibility to help those around us who are struggling."

Edwards reminded the activists of his 2004 campaign theme of "two Americas (search)," one for the rich and one for everyone else. And he poked fun at his frequent use of his own life story in his speeches.

"All of you have heard my story more than you needed to hear it," Edwards said, grinning. "I am the son of a millworker ..." The audience burst out laughing.

Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, said the "Take Back America" meeting allows "different tribes of the progressive movement to rub shoulders, share ideas."

And he credited the president with bringing those groups together.

"Bush unifies Democrats in the way Clinton used to unify Republicans," Borosage said.

Earlier in the day, the conference heard from Democratic Chairman Howard Dean (search), who said the activists have an extraordinary opportunity to provide an alternative to the country after more than four years of the "dark, difficult and dishonest vision the Republican Party offers for America."

Dean said a big problem facing the country is "the belief that propaganda and manipulation will succeed in America. I think it will not."

The Democratic chairman said Republicans already have control of the White House and Congress and are now trying to seize control of the judiciary. He was referring to the struggle in the Senate over conservative judicial nominees that have drawn unified Democratic opposition.

"I always thought an independent judiciary was important for a strong democracy," Dean said. "This administration is beginning to erode the core of democracy."

"Howard Dean's diatribe today illustrates that the Democrat Party not only lacks leadership but is overflowing with anger," said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt. "Dean's priority is to generate mudslinging headlines rather than engage in substantive debate."