The first official test of the 2004 presidential campaign, the Iowa presidential caucuses, is still more than five months away. But already, there has been a major surprise in the battle for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean has emerged from obscurity to become a leading contender in the Democratic race. But, Mr. Dean's emergence has also sparked a debate within the Democratic Party.
A year ago, Howard Dean was just another unknown Democrat considering what looked like a long-shot bid for the White House.
Today, former Governor Dean has established himself as the story in the battle for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, mainly because of his combative attitude toward the president.
"You can't beat President Bush by trying to be like him," he said. "We tried that in 2002 [congressional elections], and it didn't work. We need to stand up for ourselves again, and take on the president directly."
Democrats seem to like the approach. Although President Bush has won the hearts of conservative Republicans like no one since Ronald Reagan, he has had the opposite effect on liberal Democrats, who have become energized to work for his defeat next year.
"Howard Dean has managed to tap into the very deep wellspring of anger the Democrats feel about George Bush, about the Florida 2000 situation [election], about Iraq, about everything," said University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato. "If he continues to capitalize on that anger, he very well may end up as the Democratic nominee."
Mr. Dean has climbed to near the top of opinion polls in the early contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire, moving ahead of better known Washington politicians such as Congressman Richard Gephardt and Senator Joseph Lieberman, Al Gore's vice presidential running mate in 2000.
Howard Dean is also beating his rivals at using 21st century technology to tap into the Democratic voter resentment, both for grassroots support and fundraising.
The Dean campaign has made extensive use of the Internet to both raise money and organize volunteers around the country.
But in a recent interview on NBC television, Howard Dean said the main reason for his success so far is that voters want a candidate who says what he thinks.
"All you can do is be who you are and say what you think," he said. "And the reason that we are being propelled as fast as we are is because we have an enormous number of supporters, many of them over the Internet, but now, a growing number that are not over the Internet. And, we have got to bring new people into the electoral process."
Howard Dean is one of nine Democrats vying for the right to challenge President Bush next year, and not everyone is happy with his meteoric rise in the polls and in stature.
One of his rivals, Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, recently described the Dean candidacy as "a ticket to nowhere", saying Mr. Dean's liberal views may play well with Democratic activists, but would cause him problems in a general election match-up with President Bush.
"We are not going to win by being opposed to all tax cuts, which would raise taxes on middle class Americans," he said. "We are not going to earn the trust of the American people by being weak or ambivalent on defense. Let's pull together and fight for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party and the future of America."
And the fight is on. Howard Dean gained favor with liberal activists early on with his strong opposition to the war in Iraq. But recently, some of his rivals have questioned his ability to be commander in chief, and whether he would be too soft on national security issues, a major concern of voters in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
"I don't think Dean is a sure thing by any means," said analyst Larry Sabato. "There are some other strong candidates who have even greater resources, who will be going after Dean full tilt. So, all things considered, this is still a wide open race."
As for the president, he wants to remain above the political fray, until the election cycle kicks into high gear next year.
"There is a time for politics and that is going to be later on," Mr. Bush said. "I have got a lot to do, and I will continue doing my job. And my job will be to work to make America more secure."
But other Republicans are openly salivating over the prospect of a match-up between the president and Howard Dean, confident that they could portray the former Vermont governor as yet another Democratic liberal from the northeast.
"The Democrat's accusations aren't meant to be taken seriously, because they are un-serious people," said Republican House Majority Leader, Congressman Tom Delay of Texas, talking recently to a group of college Republicans meeting in Washington. "We are in the middle of a global conflict between good and evil, and they are in the middle of a Michael Dukakis [1988 Democratic presidential nominee] look-alike contest."
Many Democrats say they want to nominate someone next year who has a realistic chance of beating President Bush. And so, as they consider Howard Dean's chances, many are wondering what kind of nominee Howard Dean would be. Could he transform himself into an appealing moderate like the last two Democrats to win the presidency - Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter? Or would he lead the party to electoral defeat more along the lines of George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis?