In his first wide-ranging interview with a national news organization in more than a month, John Kerry sat down with TIME's national political correspondent Karen Tumulty last week as his campaign plane flew between a health-care forum in St. Louis, Mo., and a rally in Allentown, Pa. With a guitar case resting nearby and his daughter Alexandra, 31, popping in at one point, the challenger appeared very focused as he reflected on what lies ahead in the final seven weeks of the campaign--and, if he manages to pull off a come-from-behind victory, the four years after that.
TIME This past month has been pretty brutal for you, between the Swift Boat ads, the Republican Convention and the Vice President saying if you get elected, it would invite another terrorist attack. Have you come to any new conclusions about whom you're running against and what you have to do to win?
KERRY I think the President's unwillingness to walk away from those comments makes it clear that he and the Vice President will say anything and do anything to get elected and to hold on to power. It was a shameful and outrageous effort.
But you know, I've been in worse situations in my life. The attacks don't attack me as much as they attack Americans and America. They're trying to distract people from the real issues that matter.
America is not as safe as we ought to be after 9/11. We can do a better job at homeland security. I can fight a more effective war on terror. The standard of living for the average American has gone down. People's incomes have dropped. Five million Americans have lost their health insurance. The deficit is the largest it's been in the history of this country. They're taking money from Social Security and transferring it to the wealthiest people in America to drive us into debt. They're shredding alliances around the world with people we have traditionally been able to rely on. That's what bothers me.
TIME What do you need to do to make this race about what you want it to be about?
KERRY Draw the contrast; be crystal clear about it. That's what I've been doing every day. George Bush has made the wrong choices for America. He's leading the country in the wrong direction. John Edwards and I have better choices. We have a health-care plan for all Americans. We're going to stop subsidizing jobs that go overseas and create jobs here in America. We're going to fund education and not leave millions of children behind every day. The trail of broken promises and reversed decisions of this Administration is unlike any I have ever seen at any time that I have been in public life, and I'm going to draw that picture as clear as a bell.
TIME Speaking of clarity, a number of your allies have said that you haven't drawn a clear contrast between yourself and President Bush on Iraq.
KERRY The contrast could not be clearer. They spent a lot of money trying to confuse people, but I have been consistent. I would not have taken the country into war the way he did. I would not have put young Americans in harm's way without a plan to win the peace. I would not have interrupted as abruptly the effort to build alliances with other countries. I would not have turned my back on the international community. And Americans are paying a $200 billion cost today because this President rushed to war.