Drawing on military themes while trying to strengthen support among a key Democratic constituency, presidential candidate John Kerry (search) told black veterans their sacrifices were part of an "unfinished journey" to ensure that blacks need not fight as hard for civil rights as their forebears did when they returned home from war.

Kerry's tribute Friday night kicked off Memorial Day weekend activities designed to bolster his national security credentials and raise doubts about President Bush's (search) performance as commander in chief.

At a salute to veterans organized by the Congressional Black Caucus (search), Kerry said the blacks who had served in World War II "gave their sweat, gave their tears, gave their lives to a country that at that time believed they should sit behind German POWs at a USO concert."

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"When we honor the memory of those who have sacrificed and when we honor those of you who lived those lives of patriotism, we're not just talking about the past, we're talking about the future," the Massachusetts senator said. "We're talking about the unfinished journey to make sure that no one else as to fight as hard as you did."

Without specifying to whom he was referring, Kerry said there were still "people in this country who don't understand. We still have people in this country who are willing to stand in the way. We still have some who call themselves leaders who appoint people to courts who challenge affirmative action and take on the ability of people to live truly equal."

Earlier Friday in Wisconsin, Kerry criticized Bush's "blustery, arrogant policies" and promised voters, "I will destroy the terrorists, but I am going to build a bridge to every last country we can so war is the last resort."

Black voters quickly closed ranks behind Kerry in the Democratic primaries, but Kerry needs to strengthen his connections with them, said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the black caucus.

"The more he does things like this, the more they feel a warmth toward him," Cummings said in an interview after the veterans' tribute.

"Early on," the congressman said, "a number of us felt that he was a little stiff, but now it seems as if he is being very, very natural, and I think that comes from working with more African Americans on a daily basis."

Cummings dismissed concerns raised by some black officials and advocacy groups that there are not more minorities in the top ranks of the Kerry campaign, saying he felt there was significant representation. He said top campaign officials meet every two weeks with the black caucus and that Kerry had hired a number of people recommended by the caucus.

Kerry clearly had a friendly audience in the veterans, but a number said they still don't know a lot about him.

"I haven't finalized my decision yet, but it won't be Republican," said Donald Christiansen, who served as a paratrooper in Korea and later was a member of Special Forces in Vietnam. "Kerry's a very good man. He speaks well. He's a veteran."

Charles Johnson Jr., 67, of Baltimore, said he expected to learn more about Kerry's policies in coming weeks.

"I just hope that at least he will offer a fresh vision of what we need to do as Americans," said Johnson, who served in Korea during the Vietnam era.