WASHINGTON – Howard Dean, a former governor of Vermont, is at the bottom of presidential polls for 2004, an outsider among Democratic candidates -- and making the most of it.
The 54-year-old physician told a packed conference room at the National Press Club Tuesday that he's willing to challenge President Bush on his policies ranging from Iraq, to the administration's education plan to its tax cuts.
Dean argues that he is the outsider Democratic candidate free of any congressional entanglements and willing to take on the president on a variety of issues. All others currently in the race are in Congress.
The debate in Washington over whether to pass a $670 billion tax cut or a smaller version is missing the point, Dean said.
"I call this the Argentine fiscal policy," he said at the event sponsored by Atlantic Monthly and the New America Foundation. "We are headed down a path in this country of borrow and spend, borrow and spend. ...
"George Bush 41 had it right," Dean said, referring to the president's father. "It is voodoo economics and Democrats ought to stand up to the president and say, 'The right thing to do is repeal your tax cut because it did nothing to stimulate the economy and not talk any more about tax cuts until we've found, Mr. President, how we're going to pay our bills."'
Dean said people in his party are "so afraid to talk about that because they see the president's popularity and think, "Boy, people want tax cuts."
Dean has been making his case in early states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. He's been to Iowa more than a dozen times, New Hampshire two dozen and South Carolina a half dozen in the past year.
Dean criticized the president's education plan, called the "no child left behind" act, by calling it the "no school board left standing" act.
"Everybody running for president except for me and the Republicans got together on this wonderful bipartisan bill that is the second largest unfunded mandate in the history of education," he said.
"Do not prescribe the Texas system and hope it fits the rest of the country," he said. He added that he agrees with the accountability testing in the bill but not other requirements.
Dean also made a pitch for his plan of providing universal health insurance through expanding Medicaid and said it could be paid for with half of the president's tax cut. And he criticized the administration's foreign policy that he said has rejected international agreements and focused intently on Iraq without providing proof it has weapons of mass destruction.
Two Democrats who will be appearing with Dean in Iowa Saturday night rejected his description of them as timid in confronting Bush.
"It's the battles you fight that make you an outsider in the eyes of Democratic activists," said David Wade, a spokesman for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. "Kerry has a 30-year record holding the system accountable for the American people." Wade cited Kerry's activism after Vietnam, his work on the POW-MIA issue and efforts to reduce dependence on foreign oil.
Rep. Dick Gephardt's associates pointed to the Missouri lawmaker's recent comments in South Carolina when he told party activists his feelings on Bush: "He is a nice man ... but he is uninformed, he is inexperienced and he has no curiosity. ... He is not up to the job and needs to be replaced."
Asked Tuesday how he feels about being at the bottom in a recent national poll of Democrats on their choice for a nominee, Dean laughed.
"A year out, who cares?" Dean said.
"What I care about is where I am in Iowa the night before the caucuses."