As the 2004 presidential campaign formally gets under way this month in the early contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire, voters and analysts are waiting to find out if the insurgent campaign of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean is for real. Mr. Dean is one of eight Democrats vying for the right to challenge President Bush in November. Howard Dean has emerged from obscurity to become the early favorite for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.
It is often hard to know when political movements start, or insurgent presidential campaigns begin to gain momentum.
But in the case of Howard Dean, things really began to take off about a year ago, as the previously little known former Vermont governor began to differentiate himself from the rest of the Democratic presidential candidate field.
"I am Howard Dean, and I am here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party!" he announced.
In an effort to separate himself from the other Democrats, many of whom were better known, Howard Dean staked out what at the time appeared to be a risky position, all-out opposition to the president's invasion of Iraq.
After focusing his criticism on President Bush, the former Vermont governor quickly shifted the spotlight to some of the other Democratic candidates who had supported the congressional resolution authorizing the president to use force against Iraq.
"What I want to know is, why in the world the Democratic Party leadership is supporting the president's unilateral attack on Iraq?" he asked.
It is Howard Dean's determination to set himself apart from the rest of the Democratic presidential field that appeals to liberal voters like Bill Hrasky, who lives in the early primary state of New Hampshire.
"One thing after another, Bush has done things that really upset me," said Mr. Hrasky. "And then along came a guy that really has very little political experience, except being governor of Vermont, and starts pushing all of my buttons [saying things that appeal to me], and I cannot help but support the guy."
Mr. Dean is 55. He was born in New York, trained as a medical doctor and eventually moved to Vermont where he served as a state legislator and lieutenant governor. He gave up his medical practice when he became Vermont's governor in 1991, a position he held until early in 2003.
As Vermont's governor, Howard Dean proved to be conservative on budget matters, but liberal on social issues. For example, as governor he signed Vermont's civil unions law, which authorizes marriage-like spousal benefits for homosexual partners.
If he wins the presidency, Mr. Dean says he would undo most of the tax cuts favored by President Bush. He also has promised to expand health care, early childhood education and environmental protections.
But it is his condemnation of the Bush policy against Iraq that has set him apart from the rest of the major Democratic contenders, and his pledge to cooperate with other nations if he is elected president in November of 2004. "One of the promises I am going to make to you is that I will restore the honor and the dignity and the respect, which this country deserves around the rest of the world, by embarking on a foreign policy, which is principally based on cooperation and not confrontation," he said.
In the early primary state of New Hampshire, Mr. Dean has built a big lead over his nearest rival, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, and political experts say the reason is Iraq.
"They [liberal Democrats] detest Bush, but they are even unhappier, I think, with Democrats who went along with Bush," said Dante Scala, a professor of political science at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. "And Dean has tapped into that, and that is why, right now, he is beating Kerry by a very significant amount [in New Hampshire]."
Apart from Iraq, the secret to the Dean candidacy seems to be a direct speaking style that many voters find refreshing.
"I believe that Governor Dean tells it like it is," said Kelly Bellemer, who became a supporter after attending a Dean rally at a college in central New Hampshire. "He does not sugarcoat his words, and he stands behind what he says."
But former Governor Dean has his detractors as well. Some Democrats fear he would be a weak candidate against President Bush in the November election, because voters might perceive him as too liberal on social issues and too inexperienced on foreign policy.
Despite those concerns, Howard Dean has used the Internet to build an impressive base of supporters and fundraising that has made him the closest thing to a front-runner in the eight-person Democratic presidential field.
Former Vice President Al Gore's decision to endorse Mr. Dean has also contributed to a sense of momentum for the Dean campaign.
"We are going to bring hope to America, jobs to America, peace to America," said Mr. Dean. "We are going to bring pride to the Democratic Party. I need your help. Let us go get it! Let us go do it! Let us [begin to] win the White House in January of 2004!"
Howard Dean leads the polls in the early contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire, and if he does win convincing victories there, he will be the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic Party's presidential nomination during its July convention in Boston.