DES MOINES, Iowa – Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean (search) suggested Friday that he no longer thinks the Iowa caucuses are made up of extremists, a position he apparently held four years ago when interviewed about the U.S. electoral system for a Canadian television program.
"If I knew then what I know now ...," Dean said before pausing during a media scrum outside one of his campaign events in New Hampshire.
"Iowa has been very good to me. I couldn't run for president if I didn't have Iowa," Dean told Fox News before leaving the scene.
Asked if he was retracting his comments from 2000, Dean said, "Iowa's a great place for people like me who have started out with no money and now have a good message."
Dean has been trying to contain the fallout over comments he made on the Canadian talk show "The Editors" while Vermont's governor. Dean appeared on the Montreal-based show at least 90 times between 1996 and 2000, discussing a host of issues on U.S. and Canadian politics, including relations with Israel and his appraisal of President Bush as a political "moderate."
In the episode on the U.S. presidential primary system (search), Dean told the program that the Iowa caucuses are a waste of time.
"If you look at the caucuses system, they are dominated by the special interests, in both sides, in both parties. The special interests don't represent the centrist tendencies of the American people. They represent the extremes," Dean said.
"I can't stand there and listen to everyone else's opinion for eight hours about how to fix the world," he added.
Dean's remarks were replayed on American broadcasts on Thursday. They came as the front-runner, who has made a series of retractions following eyebrow-raising comments, tries to fend off last-minute resurgences by Dean's rivals also competing in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses.
A poll released Thursday by NewsChannel 8 in Des Moines, Iowa, showed Dean with 29 percent of the Iowa vote while Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt (search) held 25 percent, a statistical tie according to the poll's margin of error of plus or minus four points. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search) was running in third with 18 percent.
Reacting to Dean's earlier comments, Gephardt said he found the remarks "unbelievable."
"It leads one to believe he is cynically participating in these caucuses. And his comments on special interests, who are these special interests? Farmers? Organized labor? Senior citizens? Workers?" Gephardt asked. He also called on Dean to explain the remarks to Iowa's "ordinary citizens."
"He should certainly give them an explanation of what he meant when he said these things," Gephardt said. "I think the Iowans deserve an explanation on how he came to these conclusions and if he has changed his mind."
Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter quipped that Dean "is going to extremes of his own to win over Iowa voters."
"Which Howard Dean are Iowans going to vote for -- the one who insults them, or the one who will be soon releasing yet another clarifying statement?"
Kim Rubey, a spokesman for John Edwards (search), who is running fourth in Iowa with 8 percent of the vote, said the North Carolina senator "fully appreciates what he has learned by campaigning in all of Iowa's 99 counties."
Iowa's Democratic leaders said they believe that Dean's comments are out of date since he has spent so much time in Iowa and learned how the process works.
"Governor Dean has been here for two years and he now understands that the Iowa caucuses are really about bread and butter issues, ordinary folks with ordinary concerns like schools and jobs and health care," said Gordon Fisher, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party (search).
"He understands Iowa now. He understands Iowa better and understands that Iowa caucuses are really an important part of the presidential process," Fisher added.
For his part, Dean responded to questions about the videotaped remarks by saying that he has learned a lot since he hit the campaign trail.
"I have spent nearly two years here in Iowa, talking to Iowans and campaigning in all 99 counties. I believe it's time to stand together, in common purpose, to take our country back -- and the Iowa caucus is where it all begins," he said, adding that if elected president, he will make sure that Iowa continues to be first on the primary trail in 2008.
Iowa's Constitution mandates that the caucuses be the first in the nation, a rule that has been honored by the national political parties. Dean, however, is one of four among the nine Democratic contestants to allow his name on the D.C. primary being held on Jan. 13. The event has been labeled a beauty contest since the Democratic National Committee told D.C.'s Democratic officials that it would not seat its delegates at the convention if it selected a candidate before the Iowa caucuses.
Iowa's Democratic governor said he doesn't believe Iowa's status will be affected by Dean's remarks.
"The governor believes the Iowa caucuses remain a good proving ground for candidates as they take their messages into living rooms and around kitchen tables of real people," said Amanda Crumley, spokeswoman for Gov. Tom Vilsack, who is neutral in the race.
Fisher said he did not think that Dean's remarks about Iowa's caucus attendees would impact turnout at the big event being held in less than 10 days.
"I think turnout is going to be high because there is really a lot of interest in this race and all the candidates. In terms of whether this will effect Dr. Dean's supporters, I will leave that up to folks in Iowa who are going to make the ultimate decision," he said.
Dean also expressed confidence that the taped comments would not hurt his standing in Iowa.
"On caucus night, I am confident that we'll have terrific turnout that reflects a new energy and a new belief that people have the power to take back their country," he said.
In the meantime, two low-level volunteers for the Dean campaign in Iowa were fired Thursday for posing as average voters when they tried to infiltrate the Kerry campaign. Kerry's camp expressed outrage at the efforts. Dean aides said the campaign adheres to strict ethical codes.
Fox News' Carl Cameron, Steve Brown and Katie Sargent and The Associated Press contributed to this report.