Democratic presidential contender John Kerry (search) on Thursday said he welcomed a debate over his record on defense and vowed to conduct a vigorous race throughout the South.

Kerry dismissed criticism from Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie (search), who contended Thursday the Massachusetts senator is weak on defense and can be painted as just another Eastern liberal.

"It's the greatest form of flattery," Kerry said. "I have voted for the largest defense budgets in the history of our country."

A core argument Kerry makes for his campaign is that his war-hero background gives him credibility to challenge President Bush on defense and security issues, which Bush is certain to make a central campaign issue.

"John Kerry's record of service in our military is honorable," Gillespie told Republicans at a party meeting in Washington. "But his long record in the Senate is one of advocating policies that would weaken our national security."

Kerry said the criticism not only underscores the gains he has made as a candidate, becoming the Democrat the Republicans are fond of criticizing, but brings into the campaign his defense credentials.

Former President Clinton, asked by reporters if Kerry is too liberal to be elected, said that was an unfair description of the Massachusetts senator.

"He was good on security, good on fiscal responsibility, good on welfare reform. And I still think we've got a good field," Clinton said while visiting Washington to meet with Senate Democrats. "I like all these people. I admire them. They've made a contribution to whatever good I was able to do for the American people, and I'm not going to get involved in it."

Kerry said he has a long record of not only backing defense spending but voting for smarter spending programs.

"Unfortunately, there are people who have never met a weapons system they didn't like. I have," he said. "If the worst thing they can do is pull out a couple of votes ... let's have at it."

In opening his South Carolina campaign, Kerry said he would compete throughout the region.

Kerry had suggested earlier in the campaign that a Democrat could win the White House without Southern states. On Thursday, he said he had simply reflected the electoral math, not signaled a strategy to write off the South.

Kerry visited a high-tech training center with Rep. Jim Clyburn (search), the state's most prominent black politician. The training center is symbolic, Clyburn said, because it's the best hope for a state that has lost 60,000 jobs with the decline of the textile and tobacco industries.

"When you look at the future, who has the resume, who has the experience to bring our country back together again?" asked Clyburn, who formally endorsed the senator Thursday. "My choice is John Kerry."

Clyburn's endorsement is important because as many as half of the voters in Tuesday's primary may come from the black community. He said up to a third of black voters have yet to make up their minds.

He also predicted both Kerry and Edwards would run strong in the state.

Kerry had competed hard with North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, a native of South Carolina, for Clyburn's backing. The congressman had endorsed Rep. Dick Gephardt before the Missouri Democrat dropped out of the race.

In Arizona and New Mexico, Kerry aired a new 30-second TV ad targeting Hispanics. In Spanish, an announcer says Kerry "knows what our community needs: health care for every family, better education, and more opportunities." Then, in Spanish, Kerry says: "I want to return hope to this country."

The League of Conservation Voters also said it would run an ad Friday in New Mexico for Kerry, and was considering doing the same in Arizona and Missouri. The ad says Kerry is the only candidate with a "record of fighting for clean water, clean air and making polluters pay."