NORFOLK, Va. – Surrounded by generations of veterans and standing beside the warship Wisconsin, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry called Tuesday for a transformation of the nation’s military and the swift implementation of new anti-terrorism measures.

The Massachusetts Democrat chose Norfolk, home of the world’s largest naval base, to contrast his defense policies with President Bush’s and push for an 18-month extension of the Sept. 11 commission’s work investigating the terrorist attacks.

Kerry called the bipartisan committee’s recommendations common sense.

“We understand the threat. We have a blueprint for action,” he told a throng of flag-waving supporters. “The only thing we don’t have is time. We need to do it now.”

Kerry arrived in Norfolk on Monday afternoon for an overnight stop on a campaign swing that will take him to Boston by Thursday night, where he will accept his party’s presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention.

On Tuesday morning, several thousand supporters filled the lot in front of Nauticus, spilled over into a nearby park, and craned from downtown office towers and parking decks in the sweltering morning heat to see Kerry.

Kerry suggested that the best policy would be for the Sept. 11 commission to expand its role to oversee whether the country is moving quickly enough on homeland security measures, reorganizing intelligence agencies, forging global alliances and making America as safe as it can possibly be.

He said the commission should issue progress reports every six months, beginning in December.

The country needs to be “leading and uniting the world so we isolate our enemies and not ourselves,” Kerry said.

“We have a responsibility to act, and act now,” he said.

Kerry proposed adding 40,000 new troops to the active-duty Army, including increased Special Forces.

He also talked about creating a military families’ bill of rights that would provide for competitive pay, good housing, improved health care and better education for children of military families.

Kerry drew his loudest applause when he spoke about lessons learned from the Vietnam War.

The United States, he said, “never goes to war because it wants to; we go to war because we have to.”

Kerry also acknowledged Virginia’s conservative fiscal history and appealed for federal budget discipline. He proposed rescinding tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens, families making more that $200,000 per year, in order to lower health-care costs for almost all Americans.

Tuesday was Kerry’s fourth recent trip to the commonwealth, despite the fact that the state has voted Republican for president since 1968.

Democratic nominees historically have been a rare sight here.

In May1988, Michael Dukakis held a $100-per-plate fund-raiser at a Greek social club in Norfolk while he battled through the primaries.

Two months before the 1976 elections, then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter drew 12,000 people to a rally at Norfolk Botanical Garden.

And just days before the 1960 presidential vote, John F. Kennedy led a rally in the Granby High School football stadium, filling the bleachers and field with at least 12,000 supporters.

Kerry has vowed to contest Virginia. But the flag-decked stage and hulking battleship also provided the Vietnam veteran a powerful setting to articulate his military policy to a nation at war.

The rally drew a variety of core Democrats, including union workers, anti-war activists, young and old supporters. Republican activists protested outside the event.

Hugh B. Campbell Jr. arrived early for the 10 a.m. speeches. Campbell, 67, is a retired Navy chief living in Newport News.

The 34-year Navy veteran said he voted for Bush in the last election, but he said he dislikes the war in Iraq and the direction in which Bush has taken the country.

Kerry won a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts for his actions during combat.

“Kerry has been there and done that,” Campbell said.

Next to Kerry’s war record, he said, Bush looks like a “National Guard draft-dodger.”

Gad Brosch, a retired physician from Norfolk, also said he was troubled by the direction of the Iraq war.

“We’re having trouble making decisions,” he said.

He said he too voted for Bush four years ago and came Tuesday to learn more about Kerry.

“I go by issues,” he said. “I don’t go by affiliation.”

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