updated 3/25/2004 7:42:55 PM ET 2004-03-26T00:42:55

Howard Dean returned to the campaign trail Thursday, but this time he raised his voice above a noisy crowd to endorse Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, his former rival, for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Speaking to college students at George Washington University, Dean, the former governor of Vermont whose dark-horse anti-war campaign energized voters in the Democrats’ base, said Kerry would better protect jobs, the environment and the nation than President Bush.

“Who would you rather have in charge of the defense of the United States of America,” Dean asked the young crowd, “a group of people who never served a day overseas in their life or a guy who served his country honorably and has three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star from the battlefields of Vietnam?”

Kerry and Dean put aside their disagreements over tax cuts and the war in Iraq, promising their supporters that they would combine forces.

Pledging to use his new grass-roots organization for Kerry’s bid, Dean said the country would be devastated by four more years of what he called a “right-wing ideological agenda” and weak leadership.

The rally was part of a day of Democratic unity, when former rivals, former presidents and others put aside their differences to try to help Kerry unseat Bush.

Dean’s endorsement included an e-mail message asking his supporters to contribute money for Kerry’s bid.

“Our campaigns had a spirited debate during the primary, but the time for focusing on our differences has passed. This is not just John Kerry’s campaign — it is all of ours, and we all must take responsibility for its success. We cannot tolerate four more years of George W. Bush’s right-wing ideological agenda at home and weak leadership abroad,” Dean wrote.

Reaching out to African Americans
Other candidates who challenged Kerry in the primary, including former Gen. Wesley Clark and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, have sent e-mail solicitations asking for donations to Kerry’s campaign.

Kerry and Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said the party, with $25 million and no debt, was better prepared than ever before to challenge the Republicans and the president.

“The tools are in place,” McAuliffe told the National Newspaper Publishers Association, leaders of black newspapers around the country. “Now we need to make sure to use these tools to make sure that John Kerry is elected president.”

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McAuliffe promised the publishers Thursday that the DNC would buy advertising in the black press, and Kerry said he embraced the commitment to advertise in black newspapers.

“I am determined that in this election, in this race, during the course of our campaign, we’re going to reach out in an unprecedented fashion,” Kerry said, returning to the campaign trail after nearly a week of vacation. “We are asking you to engage in an unprecedented way. We need to build the greatest grass-roots movement in the history of this country.”

Union endorses Kerry
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which had backed Dean, also endorsed Kerry after a unanimous vote of the union’s executive council. With 1.3 million members, AFSCME is the second-largest union in the AFL-CIO and boasts one of organized labor’s largest and most savvy political operations. The United Auto Workers’ executive board followed suit, one day before Kerry campaigns in Michigan.

AFSCME initially endorsed Dean, but President Gerald McEntee withdrew its support last month after Dean failed to win a presidential primary or caucus.

Kerry’s first day back on the campaign trail ends with a fund-raiser attended by top Democrats acknowledging Kerry’s new status as head of the party. More than $11 million is expected to be raised for the Democratic National Committee.

Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore and all of Kerry’s primary rivals, except Dennis Kucinich and Carol Moseley Braun, were expected to join the celebration.

Jobs speech Friday
In the coming days, Kerry plans a series of speeches to outline his key campaign issues and differences with Bush. He delivers the first speech Friday in Detroit; aides billed it as a major policy address dealing with jobs, Kerry’s plans to create them and his critique of Bush for presiding over the loss of more than 2.2 million jobs.

Aides said Kerry would give at least three speeches focusing on economic issues, the area where Kerry believes he can make inroads against Bush. Polls show a tight race, with Kerry doing best on domestic, economic matters and Bush strongest on national security and fighting terrorism.

Kerry had been largely out of public view for the better part of a week as he and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, vacationed at their home in Ketchum, Idaho. He returned to Washington on Wednesday night and told reporters traveling with him that he felt rejuvenated.

“No more long answers,” Kerry said. “It doesn’t take me long to recharge my batteries.”

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