WASHINGTON – His anti-war rhetoric has both raised his profile and defined his candidacy, but with Iraq liberated, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean (search), the only doctor in the 2004 field, now wants to reposition himself as the health care candidate.
At a hastily arranged speech in New York City on Wednesday, Dean offered general plans for near universal health coverage through existing government programs.
Adults over age 65 would be covered under an expansion of Medicare. Young people under 24-years-old would be covered under expanded Medicaid, and 24- to 64-year-olds would be covered by public-private partnerships, vouchers and tax breaks.
"I believe health care is a right and I want to pass it through Congress," Dean said.
To pay for the package, Dean said he would repeal about 80 percent of President Bush's 2001 tax cut.
Dean has not put an exact price tag on his plan, or said how he'll curb spiraling health costs — aides say that comes later.
But picking a fight early in the race enables him to draw attention that he hopes will enable voters to see him as a contender, despite the smaller fund-raising collections and name recognition granted some of his rivals.
Tackling health care, a key voter concern, immediately pits Dean against the early front-runner in Iowa, home of the first caucus. Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, who offered his plan for universal health care last week, has a double-digit lead in the latest poll over Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. Dean ranks fourth in that poll.
Dean is so eager to cast himself as Gephardt's biggest rival in Iowa that he unveiled his health care plan at the very same New York City union headquarters that Gephardt chose as a backdrop for announcing his plan.
Meanwhile in New Hampshire, home of the first primary, Dean, the former governor of the state next door, Vermont, has been trying for months to position himself as the chief rival to the front-runner in New Hampshire's polls.
Kerry, who also hails from right next door in Massachusetts, is running five points ahead of Dean. Gephardt ranks third in state polls there and Lieberman comes in fourth.
Kerry and Dean have been sparring for months, and just this week, Kerry's campaign questioned whether Dean is fit to be president after Dean suggested that the United States may not always have military superiority worldwide.
Dean has also criticized Kerry on a variety of issues.
Fox News' Carl Cameron contributed to this report.