Today at New York University, Sen. Kerry went on the offensive.
Watch Jake Tapper's report on Nightline tonight.
"Let me put it plainly: The president's policy in Iraq has not strengthened our national security," Kerry said. "It has weakened it."
It was all part of a new aggressive strategy he explained to radio host Don Imus on Friday. "I am absolutely taking the gloves off," Kerry said.
But "taking the gloves off" implies Kerry has been holding back and is only now coming out of his corner. To those following his campaign for the past year, it may have come as some surprise to hear Kerry has been holding his tongue. While Kerry may have generally presided over a positive Democratic Convention, he continually attacked President Bush during the primaries. In fact, his perceived ability to withstand Bush attacks and retaliate in kind was one of his key selling points to Democratic voters.
In early March — just a few days after Bush attacked Kerry by name for the first time — Kerry was caught on tape on the subject. "We're going to keep pounding, let me tell you," he said after speaking by teleconference to the AFL-CIO from Ohio, apparently forgetting he was wearing a microphone. "We're just beginning to fight here. These guys are the most crooked, you know, lying group of people I've ever seen."
A week after that, on March 17, Kerry delivered another strong speech at George Washington University. "We are still bogged down in Iraq, and the administration stubbornly holds to failed policies that drive potential allies away, with a steady loss of lives and mounting cost in dollars," Kerry said.
Pairing Kerry's speech with a tough attack by Vice President Dick Cheney, The Sacramento Bee declared: "Gloves off for Kerry, Cheney; In separate speeches, they go on the attack over Iraq policies."
Some Early Hits
But critics suggest Kerry does not stay on message long enough for any attack to break through.
Some speculate Kerry wants to attack but also fears that too much negativity will alienate swing voters.
Still, he has been willing to strike. At the end of April, confronted with questions about his antiwar activities in the early 1970s, Kerry told ABC News' Charles Gibson that the attack "comes from a president and a Republican Party that can't even answer whether or not he showed up for duty in the National Guard. I'm not going to stand for it."
In August, he took on the president for not immediately leaving that grade school photo-op on Sept. 11. "I would have told those kids very politely and nicely that the president of the United States had something that he needed to attend to," Kerry said to cheers at a conference of minority journalists.
"Now to presidential politics, where the gloves are off," said Campbell Brown on NBC's Today Show on Aug. 6. "John Kerry slammed President Bush for his actions on 9/11, and a new attack ad was released questioning Kerry's service in Vietnam."
But Kerry did not immediately respond to that attack ad, launched by a group calling itself "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth." Finally, almost two weeks after the group launched one salvo after another at Kerry's decorated service in Vietnam, he responded.
"Here's what you really need to know about them," Kerry said. "They're funded by hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Republican contributor out of Texas. They're a front for the Bush campaign. And the fact that the president won't denounce what they're up to tells you everything that you need to know. He wants them to do his dirty work."
Reporting on the speech for MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olberman, the host announced that "in Boston, Kerry took the gloves off."
A Midnight Deadline Passed?
While Kerry was relentlessly — sometimes unfairly — attacked throughout the Republican convention, he vacationed, which included windsurfing. But — apparently peeved at a Washington Post headline characterizing the vice president as having characterized Kerry as "unfit" to be commander in chief, a word Cheney never actually used — that soon changed as well.
Before the president could even deliver his acceptance speech, the Kerry campaign told the media that immediately after the convention, Kerry would respond. "He'll be talking about Dick Cheney's five draft deferments," NBC's Tim Russert told Chris Matthews on Hardball. "John Kerry is taking his gloves off at midnight tonight, basically saying, I've had enough when it comes to challenging my patriotism and my military record. This campaign is really engaged as of midnight tonight."
Said Kerry to a crowd in Springfield, Ohio, "I will not have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and who misled America into Iraq."
CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts presented a broadcast the evening of Sept. 3 featuring a crowd chanting in unison before Kerry's speech: "Take the gloves off! Take the gloves off!"
"And just as the crowd urged him to," Pitts said, "he took off the gloves."
Trying to Connect
Some wondered if the new presence of former aides from the Clinton White House — like Joe Lockhart — was responsible. "Many Democrats have urged John Kerry, as you know, Joe, to come out swinging, to take the gloves off," Katie Couric said on Today. "Well, I think there will be an aggressive campaign," Lockhart responded.
Kerry continued that line of attack throughout that day in Newark, Ohio, where he campaigned. But by Saturday afternoon in Steubenville, Ohio, Kerry was mildly scolding Democrats who attacked the Bush and Cheney Vietnam service records, telling them he preferred to focus on other subjects.
Then on Sept. 8, Kerry aides previewed another big speech. "He rushed to war without a plan to win the peace," Kerry said in Cincinnati.
"Aides say Kerry wants to take the gloves off," reported Ed Henry on CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight.
Twelve days later, Kerry gave his speech at NYU. "You know, there's a time for everything," wife Teresa Heinz Kerry told supporters Monday evening. "And it was time for him to take the gloves off."
So the fact that Kerry attacked the president today is not new. What remains to be seen is if, with 43 days left to go until Election Day, this time it resonates with more voters.
After all, how many pairs of gloves could John Kerry possibly have left?
ABC News' Marie Nelson and Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.