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Kerry grasps underdog role and vows to carry fight

N.H. speech today will offer preview of presidential agenda

Senator John F. Kerry is casting himself as an underdog in the fight of his political life as he seeks to jump-start his presidential campaign today with a major speech outlining the first 100 days of a Kerry presidency. He will promise health care legislation as his first bill to Congress, new limits on government lobbying, and a rebuke of President Bush's military doctrine of preemptive war.

The Kerry campaign also began an expensive onslaught of anti-Bush television advertising in Iowa Monday and New Hampshire yesterday, which have the first Democratic nominating contests on Jan. 19 and 27, respectively. He is also planning a series of 24-hour campaign trips in the two states and a burst of hiring to energize his political operations, and announcements of several new political endorsements.

The Massachusetts Democrat, who earlier this year was considered the front-runner for the 2004 Democratic nomination, is now running closely behind former Vermont governor Howard Dean and Representative Richard A. Gephardt in Iowa polls, while Dean has opened up a double-digit lead over Kerry in recent New Hampshire polls.

So concerned are Kerry and his advisers about his prospects for the nomination, the campaign is presenting the speech today as his "New Hampshire kickoff" event, even though Kerry said said he would seek the presidency in early December 2002 and made a formal announcement tour of New Hampshire, South Carolina, Iowa, and Boston in early September.

In the new speech, Kerry will describe himself as a scrappy fighter who is at his best when he is "in tough spots," invoking his two tours of duty in the Vietnam War, his protests to end that conflict, and his tough reelection campaign in 1996 against Governor William F. Weld, according to excerpts of the speech provided to the Globe.

"I'm in a tough political fight now," Kerry says in the speech, to be delivered this morning to supporters in Concord, N.H. "I hope that when you someday face a moment like this, when the going gets tough, when what you believe in is at stake, you'll decide that you don't run; you fight back stronger than ever. That's what I'm determined to do."

This new political rhetoric has rich echoes in recent Democratic political history: scandal-scarred Bill Clinton as the "comeback kid" after his strong second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary in 1992, and Vice President Al Gore's campaign slogan, "stay and fight," as he sought to defeat Bill Bradley for the 2000 Democratic nomination.

Yet Kerry has revamped his campaign tactics so many times this year -- most recently, firing campaign manager Jim Jordan Nov. 10 and losing two senior aides over the shake-up -- that political analysts are skeptical that Kerry has found his footing as a candidate and can overtake Dean's commanding lead in New Hampshire, which he has held for months.

"Kerry has some time to turn things around, but he faces a number of challenges still," said Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire's Survey Center, which performs political polling and analysis. "The state has a liberal Democratic electorate in the primary, and Kerry got outflanked by Dean on the left and with liberals who haven't forgiven Kerry for voting to authorize the war in Iraq. I don't think Kerry has really given any reason to the people supporting Dean to drop Dean and come back to Kerry."

To "flip" those Dean voters and win over others, Kerry plans to use the TV ads, speeches, and campaign surrogates to tout his own electability against Bush -- and hammer away at Dean's. Some of the surrogates are expected to come from a new national campaign committee, also to be announced today; the campaign cochairs include Senators Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Dianne Feinstein of California and Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

Kerry first unveiled his latest political message during a speech in Des Moines Saturday night, pledging to give a "real deal" to Americans and contrasting his views and plans with the Republican incumbent's, which Kerry has dubbed "George Bush's raw deal."

Patrick Healy can be reached at phealy@globe.com.

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