updated 1/14/2004 3:13:48 PM ET 2004-01-14T20:13:48

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry promised Wednesday to stand up for hardworking people against an “economy of special privilege” as he fine-tuned the arguments he will take to voters before the Iowa caucuses on Monday.

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Kerry sought to distance himself from his Democratic rivals on taxes, contending the last thing middle-class taxpayers need is the higher taxes they would pay if all of President Bush’s tax cut were eliminated.

“To me this is a matter of principle,” Kerry said at a private college as he sounded sharply populist themes. “Democrats should stand up for everyday Americans who work hard, hope for the future and face extraordinary challenges every day.”

Kerry criticized President Bush for policies he said favor the wealthy and powerful. He pulled together previously announced proposals — ranging from new protections for pensions and restrictions on lobbyists to setting limits on executive pay — into a single package framing his candidacy.

Kerry’s campaign said the speech was aimed at defining his candidacy in the run-up to Monday’s caucuses, considered tight and volatile. Most polls show former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt bunched together atop the field of Democratic contenders, with Kerry and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards fighting for third place.

Nearly all surveys show a large number of undecided voters, with even more people willing to change their minds in the closing days, lending a sense of uncertainty to the race.

A core campaign theme
Kerry used his speech to underscore a core campaign theme that his history as a Vietnam War hero gives him credibility to challenge Bush on issues of national security.

At the heart of the Kerry package is a disagreement he and others have waged with Gephardt and Dean over taxes. Critics argue that Gephardt and Dean favor increases in middle-class taxes by proposing to repeal Bush’s tax cuts.

“While we must repeal the Bush tax cut for the wealthy, I will fight — and I ask you to join me in fighting against — proposals to increase taxes on the middle class,” Kerry said. “I disagree with those in my own party who are so mad at George Bush that they want to take it out on working families in Iowa by raising their taxes an average of $2,000 a year.”

In a swipe at Dean, who critics say runs a campaign fueled by anger, Kerry said, “I ask you to vote for answers, not anger.”

At issue are differences among the Democratic rivals over tax cuts Bush pushed through Congress. Virtually all the Democrats argue that portions of the tax cut — particularly for the wealthy — should be eliminated in favor of expanding health care and funding other programs.

Two go further
Dean and Gephardt go further, arguing for ending all the tax cuts, including portions that mainly benefit middle-class taxpayers, such as a child care tax credit. Dean argues that it’s urgent to begin balancing the federal budget, and he seeks a health care expansion, all financed by repealing the tax cuts. Gephardt also calls for eliminating the tax cut and using the money to pay for his universal health care plan.

In his speech, Kerry said working Americans deserve “a government on their side that knows when to take sides.”

“We need leadership and resolve to take on the special interests here at home, and the experience and the judgment to lead America in a dangerous world in a perilous time,” he said.

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