For the moment, the dean of his class

Bracing himself between rows of seats, Howard Dean bestrides the aisle of his bus looking less like a Colossus of the political world than a high school teacher on a field trip. He's wearing his standard uniform: gray suit pants, blue-and-white-striped Oxford shirt rolled up to the elbows, a red tie scattered with what look like fishing bobbers. His black penny loafers don't add an inch to his sturdy 5-foot 8-inch frame.

On this day, he is holding court before a group of actual students - many of them Dean volunteers - who are riding along as he tours college campuses in Iowa. In some ways, it's a surprisingly stiff exchange: Much of what Dr. Dean offers up resembles a lecture on public policy rather than casual conversation. Yet the students consume every word, whether he's talking about his college-tuition plan or his position on steel tariffs. Some even scribble notes.

At one point, however, Dean grabs an imaginary microphone and blurts out lyrics from the rap group Outkast: "Sorry, Ms. Jackson, oooooh." Then he adds, with just a hint of political calculation: "I bet Wes Clark doesn't know any words to Outkast."

A former dark horse who's catapulted to the front of the Democratic pack, Howard Dean is a rare hybrid candidate - an increasingly established heavyweight who maintains the look of a political outcast. As his profile rises, the former Vermont governor's network of support is rapidly expanding to traditional constituencies, with congressional and union endorsements drawing blue-collar workers and minorities. But at its core, the Dean phenomenon still seems shaped by a legion of fervent young people like these, drawn to his antiestablishment rhetoric and bold political stances.

The campaign's energy is fueled by a devoted base that's helped Dean weather gaffes and attacks. He's parlayed that support into stunning financial success, raising enough cash to opt out of the public financing system, with one-quarter of his money coming from people under 30.

Yet this youthful base, combined with Dean's opposition to the Iraq war, has evoked unflattering comparisons to George McGovern, and causes some to question the ultimate breadth of Dean's appeal. While students cram into auditoriums to hear him, it's unclear how much of that enthusiasm will translate into votes. In Iowa - where polls show him in a dead heat with Rep. Richard Gephardt - the caucuses tend to weed out all but the most committed voters, making them a key early test of Dean's strength.

Those on the bus treat him with a mix of adulation and chummy affinity. "He's very funny," says Nicole Cabreriza, a junior at Drake University. "He's hysterical," chimes in her friend Kristin Frucht.

"He's really easy to ask questions to," offers Samantha Donisi, a high school senior from Mason City. "He gives an answer that's not promoting himself. He's not telling you what you want to hear."

But at rallies, more than a few students cite the "free stuff" the campaign hands out as their reason for coming.

What seems to draw many people - especially young people - to Dean is a sense that they're part of a movement. Though critics have cast Dean as an "angry" candidate, aides say his speech is more about hope than anger. It's not about him, Dean tells the crowd repeatedly. It's about them. It's about changing the country. Repeatedly, he evokes the civil rights movement of the 1960s, telling listeners he wants to recapture that sense "that we're all in this together."

At times, his stump speech can resemble a self-help seminar. At the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, surrounded by potted plants onstage, he grows red in the face chanting, "you have the power," over and over to the crowd.

Dean's campaign empowers supporters to an unusual degree, encouraging them to organize themselves in gatherings like the Internet-driven "meetups." This bottom-up operating principle can lend a chaotic feel even to his official events. At one Dean rally, the sole spotlight blows out, sending aides scrambling for a replacement. At another, they forget to turn the lights on. For the "J-J" dinner, the campaign rents 47 school buses to transport supporters - but miscalculates the number of riders, so some buses wind up empty. But what's striking about these mishaps is how little they seem to matter. In some ways, they simply amplify one of Dean's strongest selling points: his ability to convey authenticity.

On the stump, Dean can seem uneven. Bristling with energy, his mind sometimes seems to race ahead of his mouth, and he can switch topics abruptly. Yet when he hits punch lines, he connects with visceral emotion. When Melissa Etheridge misses a rally due to a flight delay, the crowd hardly cares. The rock star is Dean.

Still, to some, the passionate idealism Dean inspires seems uncomfortably vague. Waiting for Dean to arrive at the University of Northern Iowa, sophomore Lee Bower glances skeptically at a young man with a homemade sign that reads, "I Want My Country Back." "Who took the country in the first place?" Mr. Bower scoffs. "I don't know what that means."

Dean represents different things to different people. Many students cite his signing of Vermont's civil-unions bill. "I like the gay thing," says Trina Hebblethwaite, a student at Graceland University. "That's my favorite thing." Some project onto Dean positions he has not taken. "It seems like he wants to call it a marriage," says Michael Bowser, a sophomore at the University of Northern Iowa. (Dean has said he personally is opposed to gay marriage.)

Among older people here, the top reason for backing Dean is his opposition to the war. "This war is a Republican war," says Roger Ostby, a retired Sears salesman who's come to hear Dean in Cedar Falls. "We have no business being there." Mr. Ostby, who says Dean has his vote, likes Congressman Gephardt, too, but doesn't think he's a "winner." And while he does view Sen. John Kerry as a winner, he says: "It's just too bad he voted for the war." A World War II veteran himself, Ostby scornfully refers to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney as "draft dodgers." Yet when asked about Dean's lack of military service, he pauses. "I don't know anything about it," he admits.

In many ways, Dean is one of blurriest figures in the race when it comes to personal details - despite his front-runner status. In speeches, he typically refrains from talking about his background or his family. His wife, Judith Steinberg, almost never joins him on the trail. A full-time physician, she has indicated that she'd like to continue practicing medicine if her husband were elected president. His two children are in high school and college.

In an interview, Dean dismisses the lack of personal stories as "New England reticence." But politically, it's also true that many of the details wouldn't help him much. Unlike Gephardt and Sen. John Edwards, who routinely stress their humble roots, Howard Brush Dean III grew up on Park Avenue in New York City, the scion of a line of Wall Street bankers. Unlike Senator Kerry and General Clark, who point to service in Vietnam, Dean got a medical deferment for an unfused vertebra in his back, then spent a year skiing in Aspen.

But some details are getting new scrutiny. Recently, Dean garnered national headlines over disclosures that the Pentagon had located remains thought to belong to his brother, Charles Dean, who was killed in Laos in 1974 by communists accusing him of being a spy. Dean traveled to Hawaii this week for a repatriation ceremony for his brother.

One part of his biography Dean does cite is his identity as a doctor. He uses it to highlight his healthcare credentials - a top issue for primary voters - even brandishing a stethoscope at an AARP forum. But it also emerges in unexpected ways. When an Iowa campaign worker collapses in a parking lot, having a seizure, Dean jumps out of his van and tends to him until an ambulance arrives.

His years practicing medicine are evident in the bluntly diagnostic approach he takes, often telling voters firmly, "Here's what we're going to do." He says he has little patience with ideologues, and describes himself as reliant on facts above all else.

Perhaps most important, he projects a doctor's unhesitating confidence, to which many people seem instinctively drawn.

Yet he has also been accused of high-handedness, and of being a poor listener. When he came under fire for his controversial statement about wanting to appeal to Southern whites with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks, he refused to apologize for days, offering measured regret only after the incident threatened to become a political liability. Rival campaigns hint that Dean's stubborn temperament may not be a good fit with the Oval Office.

"I do have a temper - I think most people have tempers," Dean admits. He's never yelled at a staff member, he says, though during his tenure in Vermont he did yell at "maybe four or five" legislators. "The one thing is, I don't back down."

Sometimes this rashness can get him into trouble. Stopping for lunch at the Amana Colonies - a cluster of 19th-century German villages in eastern Iowa - Dean is asked about Alabama Judge Roy Moore, who was removed from the bench over his insistence on displaying the Ten Commandments in his courthouse. A hint of a grin plays around Dean's mouth as he says the problem has clearly been resolved. But the woman is visibly taken aback by his reply, saying uncertainly: "But isn't it good to have - God?"

Dean quickly moves to smooth things. "Here's the deal," he says. "I'm a religious person. I pray every day, and I don't think it's the government's business to tell me who to pray to." He adds, "I don't get excited about saying 'One nation under God.' [Banning] that goes a little far for me."

One reason Dean's surge has caused such controversy in his party is that many critics believe he's too liberal for mainstream America, not only on issues from the Iraq war to gay civil unions, but also in how he comes across, rarely mentioning the campaign tropes of faith and family.

Yet Dean may prove harder to pigeonhole, politically, than opponents imagine. His tenure as governor was characterized by fiscal conservatism, and he emphasizes balancing the budget as a top presidential priority. In the 1990s he made positive statements about Republican efforts to slow the growth of Medicare - something Gephardt has successfully attacked him for in Iowa. And while he's socially liberal in some ways, he was also rated positively by the NRA and still considers gun control largely a states' issue.

Dean also has shown deft political skills, cultivating a reputation for straight talk even as he adjusts some stances to suit the Democratic primary electorate. Rivals have tried, with little success, to paint him as flip-flopping: A proponent of free trade and an ally of the business community as governor, Dean now says he'd push for stronger environmental and labor controls, and has called for "re-regulation" of some industries.

His political career has often seemed charmed. In Vermont, his first campaign for lieutenant governor was easier than expected after the incumbent chose not to run. When Gov. Richard Snelling died, Dean took over the office. Even then, however, his ambition was clear. Shortly after becoming governor, he became chair of the National Governors' Association and the Democratic Governors Association. Friends note that he's campaigned longer than almost any other presidential hopeful - much of it in obscurity. "He's paid a lot of dues," says Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell, who's known Dean for years.

He's also been unusually aggressive in pursuing this nomination. One reason Dean's out front may be that he's shown an unrelenting willingness to attack not just Bush but also his Democratic opponents. In Iowa, he recently aired the campaign's first negative ads, targeting Gephardt's support for the war.

Many voters say what they like best about Dean is his fight. And while critics characterize him as unelectable, supporters often say they think his vigor and willingness to shake things up make him the only candidate who can beat Bush.

Jenna McCarley first heard Dean speak at a soup supper months ago. "He said the things I wanted someone to say," says the retired lab technician, who's come to hear Dean at the University of Iowa in Ames. "He just has a lot of fire in his belly."

The Dean file

Born: Howard Brush Dean III, Nov. 17, 1948.

Hometown: New York, N.Y.

Parents: Andree Dean, art appraiser; Howard Brush Dean Jr. (deceased), a top executive of Dean Witter Reynolds (no relation).

Family: Wife, Judith Steinberg, M.D.; daughter, Anne; son, Paul.

Religion: Congregational; his wife and two children are Jewish.

Education: St. George's boarding school in Middleton, R.I.; Yale University, B.A., 1971; Albert Einstein School of Medicine, M.D., 1978.

Previous jobs: Stockbroker, physician.

Net worth: $3.8 million.

Favorite book: "Sometimes a Great Notion" by Ken Kesey.

Favorite song: "Jaspora" by Wyclef Jean.

Campaign song: "A Little Less Conversation" by Elvis Presley.

His wheels: A 1989 Chevy Blazer.

Favorite presidents: George Washington and Harry Truman.

Eating habits: Doesn't smoke; doesn't drink alcohol or coffee.

Crossed paths: George W. Bush's grandmother was a bridesmaid at the wedding of Dean's grandmother.

Political highlights:

• State representative of Vermont, 1983-86.

• Lieutenant governor of Vermont, 1986-91.

• Governor of Vermont, 1991-2002.

• Expanded Vermont's health-insurance program for children, making virtually everyone under 18 eligible for coverage.

• Signed legislation allowing gay couples to attain the legal equivalent of marriage.

Campaign touchstones:

• Opposed the war in Iraq.

r Would repeal all of Bush's tax cuts and use the money to give healthcare coverage to 30.9 of the 41 million uninsured, including every child, and adults up to age 25 with incomes up to three times the poverty level.

Key legislative positions:

• Critic of Bush's 'No Child Left Behind' bill - he's called it a 'disaster' - and the only Democratic candidate to oppose it all along.

• Supports civil unions, though not gay marriage, and says each state should decide on its own rules. Opposes 'don't ask, don't tell' law on gays in the military.

• Supports abortion rights and calls the ban on 'partial birth' abortion 'outrageous.'

• Believes gun control should be left largely to the states, and received the NRA's endorsement several times as governor. He does favor some federal gun-control measures, including an assault-weapons ban.

Sources: Compiled from wire services, Salon, Slate, Chicago Tribune, New York magazine, Washington Post, Time, New York Metro, National Journal, dean2004.blogspot.com.

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