WASHINGTON -- John Kerry said the country deserves leadership that "tells the truth" as he took over the mantle of the Democratic Party at a unity dinner Thursday with Presidents Clinton and Carter and some of his former foes.
"Never has the Democratic Party been more united than it is today," Kerry said in prepared remarks. "And tonight, not just as Democrats, but as Americans, we are united in the belief that America deserves better than a debate full of attacks and distortions."
Carter, Clinton, 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore and most of Kerry's primary rivals attended the celebratory dinner that raised more than $11 million for the Democratic National Committee.
"We now have a standard bearer of the Democratic Party," said DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe.
Democrats who tried to tear Kerry down during the primary were full of praise for him as they united in the common cause of beating President Bush.
"This is a night where you all are going to get to eat some great barbecue and the nine of us who ran against John Kerry are going to eat a little crow," said Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. "But John has won it fair and square."
Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark said Kerry "has the character and values to regain the trust and confidence of Americans and to bring our allies back on board."
There also was much condemnation of Bush.
Florida Sen. Bob Graham labeled him "Houdini" for turning a budget surplus into a deficit. Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt said Bush is the worst of the five presidents he's served under in Congress.
"I'm nostalgic for Ronald Reagan," he said.
Earlier in the day, Kerry was endorsed by his harshest primary rival, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who said Kerry's decorated service in Vietnam made him the better man to lead the country's military.
He also picked up support from two labor unions -- the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the United Auto Workers. AFSCME's 1.3 million members make it the second-largest union in the AFL-CIO, boasting one of organized labor's largest and savviest political operations. The UAW backing ahead of Kerry's visit to Michigan.
Former rivals Dennis Kucinich and Carol Moseley Braun did not attend the dinner. Kucinich, who hasn't formally ceded to Kerry, says he will support the eventual nominee but wants to continue campaigning for peace, universal health care and fair trade. Braun cited a prior commitment.
Diners paid $1,000 to $25,000 to attend and eat chicken, pulled pork sandwiches, baked beans and coleslaw on plastic plates. Despite the casual fare, Al Sharpton wore black tie.
As polls show Kerry and Bush running about even, Kerry accused the president of misleading Americans in a rush to war with Iraq.
"Above all, this country deserves leadership that faces the truth and tells the truth," Kerry said, "that trusts the American people and knows that when we live up to our values, the United States of America never goes to war because it wants to, but only because it has to."
Kerry said Bush had presided over a failed economic policy, job losses, a growing deficit, dependence on foreign oil, and millions of uninsured Americans, and he sought to boost his national security credentials with a message for America's friends and allies.
"When it comes to defending our security and defeating the terrorist threat, this nation is united, "Kerry said. "We will stand as one country to protect the safety of our people. And we will never rest until we win the war on terror."
McAuliffe said the party, with $25 million on hand and no debt, was better prepared than ever to challenge the GOP.
Still, Kerry and his party are at a disadvantage. The Republican National Committee reported $45 million on hand at the beginning of the month and has raised more since then. Kerry reported $2.4 million and has raised roughly $20 million over the Internet since then. But Bush dwarfed him with $110 million and took in millions more at fund-raisers in recent weeks, including one Thursday in Kerry's hometown of Boston.
Democratic-leaning groups are spending millions in support of Kerry, which could help even the gap. And McAuliffe said the party plans to raise $100 million more.
Kerry also met privately with Dean and Dean's congressional supporters and donors.
Earlier, Bush's campaign distributed a list of criticisms Kerry's rivals made against him during the campaign, including that he should have voted to support troops in Iraq, that he changed his position on that war and affirmative action, and that he's a Washington insider who can't pay for his programs without eliminating Bush's tax cuts.
"All of the Democratic opponents he faced during the primary said that John Kerry's numbers didn't add up in the primary and they don't add up now," said Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt. "It means a massive tax increase for middle income families."
On the Net:
Democratic National Committee: http://www.democrats.org