COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa - Fast-rising Democrat Howard Dean said on Friday his 2004 White House campaign was on a roll and challenged Republicans who would welcome him as President Bush's opponent to "bring it on."
As the former Vermont governor traveled the snow-covered plains of western Iowa with Al Gore's surprise endorsement tucked away, nobody seemed able to agree on whether he was a dangerous liberal or a closet conservative.
If I may quote the president.
Bring it on.
Republican advisers regard him as the probable Democratic nominee, vulnerable to attack as inexperienced in national security and running too far left in the primary campaign to make a credible change of course to win in November.
"If I may quote the president," Dean told reporters with a smirk, "Bring it on." He was paraphrasing Bush's much criticized "bring 'em on" challenge to insurgents in Iraq.
While Republicans portray Dean as an angry, tax-raising, civil union supporting, anti-war candidate, they also worry about his proven ability to fire up the Democratic base and his knack for attracting young and first-time voters.
From the other end of the political spectrum, Dean has been accused of hiding a conservative record.
Civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton, a longshot among the nine candidates vying for the right to challenge Bush asked in a written statement: "Will the real Howard Dean please stand up?"
He charged that as Vermont governor for almost 12 years, Dean had opposed affirmative action, supported the death penalty and appointed conservative judges. Dean has sealed his records but, under pressure of a lawsuit, has agreed to let a judge decide which documents should be made public.
"I'm very conservative about money and I'm very progressive on social issues," Dean said at a town hall meeting in Council Bluffs, promising to balance the budget, provide better health insurance and pursue a defense policy "consistent with American values."
Democratic opponents, who underestimated the staying power of Dean's insurgent Internet-driven bid and his fund-raising prowess, are struggling to find a way to stop his campaign from outstripping them in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the first major contests will be held next month.
A win in both would give Dean a considerable advantage going into the first southern primaries on Feb. 3, where rivals currently view him as more vulnerable.
"I think we're on a roll to beat George Bush," Dean said, citing his grass-roots strength and his decision to reject public campaign financing with its mandatory spending limits.
Bush already has passed the $110 million mark on his way to a record-shattering $170 to $200 million. Dean has raised about $31 million so far and believes he can match Bush by convincing 2 million Americans to donate $100 each.
This week's endorsement by Gore, the party's nominee in 2000, is regarded as particularly valuable to Dean in Iowa, a state the former vice president won handily and where he is popular among Democrats, many of whom still chafe over his controversial loss to Bush in the general election.
But to pundits and analysts predicting Dean has the nomination wrapped up, and to Gore who urged Democrats to close ranks behind the former governor, some Iowans say not quite so fast.
Earl Ernst, 69, pointed out that Dean and Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt, whom he favors, were running neck-and-neck in Iowa polls. "I haven't made my mind up, but I don't think the Gore endorsement means anyone should throw in the towel," he said. Ernst was still undecided after Dean's appearance.
"Anybody can still win," declared Denise Lightfoot, a teacher at Abraham Lincoln High School.
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