BOSTON (AP)- Sen. John Kerry challenged President Bush over the war in Iraq Thursday in the climactic speech of the Democratic National Convention and pledged an administration where “America never goes to war because we want to, we only go to war because we have to.”

“I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as president,” said the Massachusetts senator, a decorated Vietnam War veteran now trying to oust an incumbent commander in chief.

Vowing to build a stronger military at home and strong alliances overseas, Kerry said the nation then will be able to tell terrorists: “You will lose and we will win.”

“The future doesn’t belong to fear; it belongs to freedom,” he said in excerpts of remarks prepared for delivery.

Kerry’s speech capped a four-day national convention designed to present him to millions of undecided voters as a man tested by war and ready to take command in an era of terrorism.

He and vice presidential running mate John Edwards depart Friday for a 3,500-mile, coast-to-coast campaign swing through 21 states.

After spending the week at his Texas ranch, Bush, too, intends to resume campaigning with a bus tour through battleground states stretching from Pennsylvania to Missouri.

In remarks aimed at a prime-time television audience as well as the thousands of delegates packed into the FleetCenter, Kerry painted a portrait of a nation suffering economically after four years of Republican rule.

“Wages are falling, health care costs are rising and our great middle class is shrinking. People are working weekends; they’re working two jobs, three jobs and they’re still not getting ahead,” he said.

“We can do better and we will. We’re the optimists,” he said, and added, “We value an America where the middle class is not being squeezed, but doing better.”

Kerry did not mention Bush by name in the excerpts, but his criticism was unmistakable.

“I will immediately reform the intelligence system so policy is guided by facts, and facts are never distorted by politics,” he said in reference to claims that the president relied on faulty intelligence in deciding to invade Iraq in 2003.

“And as president, I will bring back this nation’s time-honored tradition: the United States of America never goes to war because we want to, we only go to war because we have to,” Kerry said.

The four-term senator voted in October 2002 to give Bush the authority to use military force to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, but later voted against legislation providing $87 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kerry’s convention scriptwriters supplemented the speech with a biographical video pitched to voters who will choose a president come fall.

“My promise is to lead our country, to bring people together and take us to a better place,” the 60-year-old lawmaker said in the nine-minute campaign documentary.

The video also includes the first reference from the convention podium to Kerry’s emergence as a prominent anti-war activist more than three decades ago after he returned home from Vietnam.

The speech aside, all was in readiness for the traditional, made-for-television convention-ending spectacle – the streamers, the confetti, the 100,000 red, white and blue balloons nestled in the rafters to be released on command.

Pre-convention polls showed Kerry even to slightly ahead of Bush, a strong position for a challenger. Whatever sort of surge in support he receives from his convention, Republicans hope to counter next month when they meet in New York to nominate Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for re-election.

Bush’s GOP surrogates kept up their convention-week criticism of the Kerry-Edwards ticket in terms likely to recur throughout their own convention.

“Everything and anything has been discussed but their record,” former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said of the Democrats, joining a string of Republicans accusing Kerry of trying to obscure a career-long record of liberalism.

Edwards was up early after little sleep on the day after a convention speech that prompted sustained applause from delegates in the hall. He had breakfast with delegates from Wyoming, Alabama and his home state of North Carolina, then met separately with delegations from the battleground states of Michigan, West Virginia and New Mexico.

“The truth is, we can’t do this without you,” said Kerry’s ticket mate. “We need you out there working, organizing, getting people to the polls.”

The convention’s final evening was as rigorously scripted as the first three, designed to flesh out Kerry’s biography and emphasize his experience as a decorated Vietnam veteran who helped save the lives of others.

The video was part of the effort to shed Kerry’s image as an aloof politician, casting him as an athlete and a musician, a Yale graduate and a prosecutor, a soldier and a son, a father and a husband.

“I cried like a baby when they were born, both of them,” Kerry says of his two daughters, Vanessa and Alexandra.

The run-up to the speech included an appearance at the podium by the men he calls his band of brothers, more than a dozen Vietnam swiftboat crewmates and Jim Rassmann, the man who credits the former naval officer with saving his life under fire.

Former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, who lost three limbs while serving in Vietnam, drew the assignment of introducing Kerry.

After days in a heavily fortified convention city, Democrats were ready to break camp. Vendors hawked their last memorabilia, from buttons to banners. “Re-defeat Bush,” was one popular campaign button, a wry reference to the 2000 recount election in which Al Gore won the popular vote but Bush got the White House.

After three days of relative calm, protesters burned a two-faced effigy depicting Bush on one side and Kerry on the other. A demonstrator wearing a black hood was dragged from the crowd and detained by police.

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AP-ES-07-29-04 1725EDT

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