Vermont Governor Ponders Presidential Bid

Voters are frustrated with President Bush's shift to the right since winning election and Democrats in particular are looking for candidates willing to stake out differences, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said Thursday.

"I think Democrats are interested in somebody who speaks their mind very frankly and is not afraid to take on conventional wisdom such as rolling back the tax cuts," Dean said.

Dean is mulling a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, and is moving to increase his profile in Iowa, where Democrats will launch the presidential nominating season with precinct caucuses in 22 months.

He has campaigned in the state on behalf of others, but Wednesday and Thursday was spending private time meeting with Democratic activists to get their views on a potential run.

Another trip is planned in April, and Dean said that he planned "quite a stretch" of stumping the state in June.

Aides have said Dean, a physician, is leaning toward making the run and Dean said he had built an active travel schedule this spring and summer to test the impact of a campaign on his family life.

As a New England governor, Dean has a natural base in New Hampshire, home of the nation's first presidential primary and he said Iowa is a comfortable state for him because of its rural character.

Dean is a leading figure in a debate raging within the Democratic Party over which direction the party should head in the wake of the razor-thin loss in 2000.

Some argue that Democrats must steer a moderate course seeking to lure independent voters. Dean and others attribute former Vice President Al Gore's loss to his failure to ignite the Democratic base, and say Democrats must aggressively chart differences with Bush.

"I think people are somewhat shocked that the president is governing from so far to the right, and they are upset about it," Dean said. "I think the party needs a very forthright message and we cannot be intimidated by the conventional wisdom in Washington that the president has a 75 percent favorability rating."

Bush's popularity has soared because the nation has sought unity in the wake of terrorist attacks, but in the end voters will make their decision on far more traditional grounds, Dean said.

"I think voters care about jobs, they care about education, they care about health care," he said. "I think they're going to end up voting the economy."

Democrats seeking their party's nomination should keep a laser-like focus on those domestic items, Dean said.

"I think the president is absolutely wrong on his domestic agenda," he said. "He has put education on the back burner, he has put construction jobs on the back burner, he's put health care on the back burner and I don't think that's what the president was elected to do."

Dean has hired veteran consultant Joe Trippi, who has run campaigns in the state since the mid-1980s, and is making initial contact with key activists.

"We've talked to a lot of people but it's a little early to put a field team together," said Dean.

Dean's Iowa visit comes as candidates are beginning to sharpen their focus on the next campaign. North Carolina Sen. John Edwards is assembling yet another trip through the state next week, while House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt is stumping in the state in two weeks.

Dean says he has an edge because he's been a small-state governor since 1992 in a state that looks a lot like Iowa.

"It's a great match for me," he said. "If I can raise enough money to get the message across in Iowa, it's a winning message."