GREENVILLE, S.C. — He blasts big oil. He rails against HMOs. He promises to rout the "powerful special interests that seem to be walking away with the store in Washington."
In short, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts has emerged not just as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, but as a candidate casting himself as a populist.
The transformation, which came roughly when Kerry shook up his campaign in the fall, has helped him rise from political near-death to a commanding position as the presidential race heads into Tuesday's important seven-state contest.
Yet, as Kerry shakes his fist at the powerful and advantaged, he has capitalized on their largess, as rival Howard Dean pointed out Saturday in one of his harshest attacks of the campaign.
During 19 years in the Senate, Kerry has collected millions of dollars from lawyers, lobbyists and others who seek to influence Congress.
"He's getting money from a lot of classic givers," said Larry Noble of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign watchdog group.
Noble suggested that this makes Kerry's populist pitch rather hollow. " 'I don't represent special interests' has become a standard chant of every candidate."
But Kerry is no different from any member of Congress -- or the president, for that matter -- in collecting contributions from individuals and interests that have big stakes in Washington. In his defense, several lobbyists raising money for Kerry's presidential campaign said that although they had sought help for the clients, he turned them down as often he backed their interests.
"They haven't gotten anything for it," Kerry said Saturday of the lobbyists and groups that have contributed to his campaigns. "Those guys have never, ever, ever gotten anything."
The populist tradition runs deep among Democrats, especially here in the South, where hard-pressed workers on farms and in factory towns once made up the backbone of the party. Times have changed, and the South is now a Republican bastion.
But the message -- standing up for the aggrieved against far-off, impersonal economic forces -- is much the same. It is now aimed at the nation's suburbs and office parks, at voters who have lost their jobs to the shrinking manufacturing industry, the underemployed and parents struggling with tuition hikes and soaring healthcare costs.
Tapping their anxieties -- and eager to exploit one of President Bush's perceived weaknesses -- the Democratic candidates blame the economic stress many Americans feel on greedy corporations, unchecked special interests and an administration they portray as beholden to the rich and politically powerful.
Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina has made economic populism the centerpiece of his candidacy, telling voters how he fought big corporations as a trial attorney before entering politics.
He emphasizes his roots as the son of a mill worker and has made his portrayal of "two Americas" -- one for the privileged, one for the rest -- the heart of his campaign speech.
Yet trial lawyers, who often have legislation before the Senate, have been his biggest campaign contributors.
When Dean sought to broaden his message beyond criticizing the war in Iraq, he began echoing Edwards. He assailed Bush as a president "of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations."
Skeptics note that Edwards and Kerry are both multimillionaires, raising doubts not only about their populist message, but their own credibility.
Last week, Edwards was forced to defend his wealth at a South Carolina forum -- "I will never forget where I came from," he vowed -- and Republicans are poised to challenge Kerry's sincerity as well.
"He strikes me as not a particularly credible figure taking up that gauntlet," said Robert Teeter, a Republican pollster. "He's a rich guy from Massachusetts."
But Jim Jordan, a former Kerry campaign advisor, sees no downside to the candidate's wealth. "There's something really attractive about a wealthy populist. It comes across not as grievance, but generosity and sincerity," Jordan said.
Kerry's condemnation of special interests and their sway is nothing new. "All the money in the system right now is equally corrupting," he said at a 1995 forum on campaign finance reform. "All of it comes with strings attached from those who seek influence of some kind."
But he did come comparatively late to the populist bandwagon, after spending much of last year speaking loftily of goals such as "going to the moon at home" by ending dependence on foreign oil, or confounding audiences with talk of "CAFE standards" -- Washington-speak for increasing auto fuel efficiency.
Aides say it took Kerry some time to get comfortable with a more fiery message -- trying it out for months before small audiences in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But they insist that standing up for the little guy is a natural role for the former county prosecutor. He made his reputation in Washington as an investigator, delving into matters such as the Iran-Contra affair.