Critics of Vermont's former governor say Howard Dean (search) has fashioned himself a humble populist and darling of the Democratic left wing in part because no one has really questioned his record and leadership as governor.

While political pundits are quick to compare him with another once little-known governor who would be president, Bill Clinton, Dean's detractors back home call him a hothead and a political opportunist who might crack once the media begins to take him to task on the issues.

“Personally, I think he’ll self-destruct at some point,” said Ruth Dwyer, a former Republican state legislator who ran against Dean in 1998 and 2000 re-elections, but failed to beat the six-term popular governor.

“When push comes to shove, and he’s under pressure, he won’t make it, he never could,” said Dwyer.

Vermont state Rep. Frank Mazur, a nine-year Republican legislator, agrees. “He’s got a very short temper; he gets rattled very easily, and when he gets rattled he says dumb things.”

While Dean exhibits some of this propensity, detractors call it hostility and petulance, but supporters describe it as passion and “straight talk.”

“He shoots from the hip -- but I appreciate that; it’s a breath of fresh air,” said Democratic state Rep. Robert Dostis.

“Most of the press had a wonderful rapport with him -- any editor will tell you that,” said Ellie Dixon, editor for the Caledonian-Record, which was the first newspaper in the state to endorse Dean's presidential bid, and is considered the only Republican-leaning paper in Vermont.

Many people’s first impression of Dean came during the first debate between Democratic candidates in South Carolina on May 2. There, he engaged in -- and subsequently was criticized for -- an unusually testy exchange with one of his rivals, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

Then, on June 22, he avoided direct answers to several questions on NBC’s Meet the Press. When asked how many troops were in Iraq, Dean, who has been roundly critical of the war, could not say. Instead he hastily replied, “I don’t think I need to know that to run in the Democratic Party primary.”

In January, when asked by Stu Rothenberg of Roll Call magazine why he decided to sign Vermont’s landmark gay civil unions bill in 2000 behind closed doors if he was so supportive of the bill’s tenets, Dean blurted, “Bullsh—t! No one from Vermont said that!” 

Rothenberg, who said Dean proceeded to follow-up with a reasonable answer, was nevertheless surprised by his outburst.

“I think whether he is angry or not all the time, he comes off that way. He needs to address that because it will not sell during a long campaign when he is under more of a microscope than he is now,” said Rothenberg.

But the fiery speeches and angry diatribes, mostly against President Bush, are in part responsible for the fervent following from the political left, say supporters.

“I think the people who work with Howard Dean and meet with Howard Dean on the campaign trail are attracted to him because he speaks his mind and is not filtered or heavily handled,” said campaign spokeswoman Courtney O’Donnell. “I think that is one of his great strengths as a leader.”

Dean’s supporters say his other strengths lie in his ability to balance budgets -- as he did for the 12 years he was in office, between 1991 and 2002. He also held the line on taxes and aggressively instituted a health care system that covers nearly every child in the state and provides insurance to many low-income families.

Critics balk at suggestions that Dean accomplished these fiscal feats alone. And while giving him credit for balancing the budget and paying down debt, they say he did it by raiding a number of special funds and cutting programs like education. He didn't lower the income tax until five years after his initial campaign promise, but he oversaw the institution of the state’s first property tax in 1997.

Overall, according to the Tax Foundation (search), Vermont is ranked 11th in tax burden -- Vermonters are taxed 33 cents for every dollar they make.  It was also ranked 42nd in business friendliness in the Small Business Survival Index 2002 (search).

Dean, a physician, pursued his goal of covering the uninsured by putting nearly 25 percent of Vermont’s nearly 650,000 people on federally subsidized Medicaid. As a result, all but two private insurers have left the state, claims Republican House Speaker Walter Freed.

Now that hard times are here, said Freed, the program continues to grow, but the dollars aren’t coming in from Washington fast enough.

“If he does for the national system what he did for Vermont’s system, he will bankrupt it,” Freed said.

Dean supporters call these accusations “pure partisan politics.”

“That’s certainly their spin and it’s been that way for years,” said one source close to the campaign.

Former Republican state Sen. John McLaughery said Dean was never as liberal as he is labeled, and often fought bitterly with liberals in Vermont. He called Dean a man driven by political ambitions for higher office, and said Dean's flashing liberal credentials now is his key to success in the primary. 

“He was always intensely political, he was never interested in managing the state government -- except for when there was a politically charged situation that demanded his attention,” he said. “I think the liberals here would tell you the same thing. It was always ‘me, me, me.’”

Despite grumblings back home, Rothenberg said if Dean would control his urge for verbal confrontation, he has the makings of a successful leader. “I’ve watched crowds react to him -- he clearly stirs something in them.”