WASHINGTON – He's known as the anti-war candidate whose appeal is to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, and some Republicans say if Howard Dean gets the nomination, President Bush will be a sure bet to win a second term.
Not so fast, say some moderate congressional Democrats who would be affected if Dean is at the top of the ticket. He also supports gun rights, the death penalty and a balanced budget.
Republicans and even some moderate Democrats have portrayed Dean as the next George McGovern, who won the 1972 Democratic nomination by appealing to anti-war liberals only to get trounced by a sitting Republican president, Richard Nixon. But behind Dean's liberal image is his record as Vermont governor of reforming welfare, slashing state spending and cutting taxes for businesses.
Moderate Democratic Rep. Cal Dooley of California says Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman is the best Democrat to take on Bush next year. He says Democrats in moderate districts wouldn't want to see Dean on the top of the ticket right now, but that could change if Dean changes his rhetoric and starts talking about his record.
"He's not nearly as liberal people perceive him," Dooley said.
Dean is still evolving his national image as he climbs to the top of the field in fund raising. That rise and his strong views on Iraq earned him an appearance Friday on ABC's "Good Morning America."
He had entered the race largely unknown nationally with a record that cannot be simply defined as liberal or conservative.
Dean says when he took over the Vermont governor's office, the state had an enormous debt and income taxes that he had to pare down.
"The liberals hated me," he said in an interview from the campaign trail in New Hampshire. "I would not spend the money. I was a fiscal conservative. So I got crosswise with liberals immediately. Moderate Republicans and independents liked me and trusted me with their money."
Dean said as his tenure continued, he expanded health care, reformed education and signed the civil unions bill that gave gay couples the same rights as married couples. That left the more conservative Democrats unhappy.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., a leader in the centrist New Democrat Coalition, said it's unclear how Dean would affect the party if he got the presidential nomination.
"It really all depends on what he ends up campaigning on," said Smith, who is backing Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts for president. "His public record as governor was extremely moderate. Some of his rhetoric has been a little less moderate."
Many of the more conservative members of the caucus say they don't know much about Dean yet. Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi said he is so ignorant of Dean's record that "I would be perfect to serve on a Howard Dean jury."
But Dean has been reaching out to some moderate congressional Democrats who have not yet endorsed one of his opponents.
Rep. Charlie Stenholm, a Democrat who describes his Texas district as solid Bush country, said he's meeting with Dean next week. Reps. Baron Hill of Indiana and Dennis Moore of Kansas say they've talked to him and even if they don't agree with all his positions, they like him personally and are impressed with what he has accomplished so far in the race.
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., represents a rural district that favored Bush in 2000, but he says his constituents could be attracted to Dean's record of expanding health care to children in Vermont.
"In my district, I tell people to watch Dean," Stupak said.