PHOENIX — He has dropped the red-meat riff on "Benedict Arnold C.E.O.'s." He is talking up tax cuts for corporations, playing up his deficit-cutting credentials and taking on teachers over pay-for-performance.
And on Friday, John Kerry came to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council here sounding little like the outraged, populist scourge of special interests and big business who fended off challenges from his left in the Democratic primaries.
"I believe, as I know you do, that the private sector is the engine of economic growth," Mr. Kerry told the group, which helped form many of Bill Clinton's policies on the economy, welfare and trade. "I don't pretend that it's the government that does it all. I refuse to lead a party that loves jobs but hates the people that create them."
As he makes the transition from a primary contender to a general-election candidate, Mr. Kerry has been steadily, if subtly, tinkering with his message. He has dropped some of his more heated notes of outrage and added cooler ones about economic opportunity, empowerment, and shared responsibility, the cornerstones of Mr. Clinton's, and the council's, brand of progressivism.
His trajectory is typical of presidential candidates, who play to their party's base in the primaries before striking out for the political center in the fall. Mr. Kerry, after all, had to contend with Howard Dean's antiwar message and then overcome John Edwards's populist appeal on trade. Now, by contrast, he is reaching out to independents and voters he calls "non-Bush Republicans."
"Howard Dean was the angry candidate, and he probably pulled some of the other candidates in that direction, but voters didn't go in that direction," Al From, the founder of the D.L.C., said in an interview. "In a general election, the candidate with the most hopeful message is going to win it. Most people in the U.S. want to be rich, they want to get ahead, and that's why an opportunity-oriented message works."
In that vein, Mr. Kerry has been calling himself an "entrepreneurial Democrat" and notably assured an audience of donors three weeks ago that he did not want to soak the rich: "I am not a redistributionist Democrat," he said. "Fear not."
He also lifted an idea from the council itself two weeks ago, adopting its call last December for a "contract with the middle class."
Mr. Kerry's path so far, though, has been more a matter of shifting emphasis than of sharp movement: His aides argue that his hunt to the middle ground really is a return to his comfort zone. And in his speech here, he noted some of the ways in which he has challenged Democratic orthodoxy in the past.
Mr. Kerry said he voted for welfare overhaul "when our party was divided" over it, imposing "tough work requirements and time limits," and that he pressed to legislate big money out of politics when "both parties and this administration dragged their feet."
He also talked of how, ignoring the urging of many Democratic strategists, he is moving beyond the party's home turf of domestic policy and taking on President Bush over the military, terrorism, national defense and patriotism itself.
"For 30 years since Vietnam, the other party has tried to frighten voters into thinking that only Republicans care about national security," Mr. Kerry said. "They attacked us so often that some in our party would rather try to change the subject to the economy than show our strength on national security."
By way of example, Mr. Kerry brushed off Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's apology earlier on Friday to attack Mr. Bush over the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by their American captors. "The chain of command goes all the way to the Oval Office," he said. "Harry Truman did not say `The buck stops at the Pentagon.' "
He added that the nation needed not just a new defense secretary, but a new president, "one who is strong enough to take responsibility and, when necessary, correct course."
Mr. Kerry also sharply rebuked Mr. Bush's foreign policy as a whole, saying that America's military strength may be at a peak but that its moral authority is at a nadir.
"America wasn't put here to dominate the world," Mr. Kerry said. "We have a higher calling: to lead it."
The Bush campaign concedes neither the national-security terrain nor the idea that Mr. Kerry is or ever was a centrist, let alone a deficit hawk. On Friday it arranged for Senator Zell Miller, the Georgia Democrat who is supporting Mr. Bush, to assert that Mr. Kerry was an extreme, out-of-touch liberal who had proposed $1.9 trillion in new spending. "Kerry's spending can only be paid for with higher taxes on all Americans and would derail the economic recovery sparked by President Bush's pro-growth policies," Mr. Miller said in a statement.
Mr. Kerry, for his part, told the D.L.C. that he would deliver the bipartisanship that he said Mr. Bush had forgotten. "If you want to be a reformer with results, you have to be a uniter, not a divider," he said, poking at two of the president's 2000 campaign slogans.
Perhaps because he has not taken any giant steps to the right, Mr. Kerry's centrism still feels somewhat tentative, though it pops up in his new wave of ads, with references to his work with Senator John McCain, a Republican, and to a vote in 1985 when he "broke with his own party to support a balanced budget."
Mr. Kerry's latest break with Democratic dogma is his call for a "new bargain" with teachers, a $30 billion plan to steer new teachers to areas where they are needed in exchange for speedier ways to remove bad teachers and a system to reward excellent teachers with more pay.
The bargain is not exactly onerous for teachers' unions, however, and both major teachers' unions responded by praising Mr. Kerry. Pay-for-performance incentives would be accompanied by across-the-board raises, and there would be more money for mentoring and professional development that the unions want.
But more examples are coming, Mr. Kerry hinted: Next week he will start selling his health care program in earnest. "My plan will actually lower the cost of health care, and it does it in a market-oriented, incentive-based way," he said, using words meant to warm the hearts of New Democrats everywhere. "It will bring businesses to the table, not alienate them."
Mr. From said Mr. Kerry's appeal to the middle on pocketbook issues could be decisive. "Democrats are going to come out for John Kerry, he doesn't need to worry about that," Mr. From said. "He needs to make sure that the voters who make the difference between a 45 percent candidate and a 51 percent candidate can be persuaded.
"Some of them may vote because of resentment, but a lot of them are just trying to get ahead," he added. "They're working more and more in the knowledge economy, they're more affluent, they're educated, and they respond more to the politics of aspiration than of grievance."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company