Howard Dean tips back his cowboy hat, adjusts his guitar, and lets fly some fancy finger picking. The crowd of state lawmakers hoots in delight, clearly surprised at their 11-year incumbent governor's musical prowess.
They roar even louder as he launches into a parody of his recent cross-country travels to the tune of "On the Road Again."
"Just a nonpolitical tour of the United States," he croons, his female staff singing back-up vocals. "Everyone's my friend, if they're from a state with lots of delegates, but I'm not a candidate.... Yet!"
But he'll be a presidential contender soon enough. The New York-born, Yale-educated medical-doctor-turned-Green-Mountain-politician is the dark horse in a crowded field of high-profile Washington Democrats. A social progressive and fiscal conservative from a liberal New England state, he's given about as much chance by political deans as Jimmy Carter was when he took to the campaign trail in 1975.
And the newly compressed primary schedule which has forced an early start on the stump for such front-runners as former Vice President Al Gore, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, gives Dean far more to overcome. He'll have less money and even less time to develop momentum.
But the governor, who is far more outspoken in his criticisms of President George W. Bush than any of his rivals, is still banking on his plain-speaking style to win Democratic loyalists in crucial early states. "The country is going in fundamentally the wrong direction in almost every area," he says. "This president is going to spend the country into oblivion. I want this country to start making decisions over the long-term not, like this president does, in two- and four-year election cycles."
Dean has staked out controversial policy positions. He favors universal health care, which he considers a moral imperative. As a governor who's insured almost every child in the state, he contends it's also fiscally responsible. Political analyst Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia argues that such positions put Dean "far to the left" of the political mainstream.
Still, he says, "I've learned never to rule out anyone if they've had a significant office and they have enough ambition," he says. "It's always possible [he could win]."
Democratic strategist Eric Hauser agrees that Dean's chances are slim, but he believes his strong positions help him stand out. "He's also an accomplished politician he's not a Ralph Nader," says Mr. Hauser, who was Bill Bradley's press secretary in the 2000 election. "Howard Dean knows how to build coalitions ..., and he knows how to win."
Since 1982, when he first ran for state representative, Dean has never lost an election. Purported to be the first Democrat from a family of Park Avenue financial barons, one of his early moves as a new representative was to put other Democrats on notice that they had to get a grip on the state's purse strings.
"He told them they'd never be successful as a party because the people did not trust them with their money," says Vermont political analyst Peter Freyne. "He was right: He was the strict school teacher who taught the liberal Democrats in this state to be fiscal conservatives, and to be proud of it."
Dean is the country's longest-serving Democratic governor. Over the years, he's grown more comfortable with controversy. He contends that his battles over statewide education reform and the civil-unions bill, which legally sanctions gay unions, strengthened "the core of who I am."
"I realized I could stand up and take the heat after the civil-unions election," he says. "And I found that taking the heat wasn't so bad when you thought you were doing the right thing."
His critics in Vermont contend that Dean is too politically expedient, that he waits to test the political wind before staking out his stand. They note that he signed the civil-unions bill in private, so there would be no pictures.
He's also taken heat from Democrats for his fiscal conservatism. Despite his support for universal healthcare, he demanded the legislature cut Medicaid to keep it in line with state resources. Noting that healthcare costs are spiraling up, and employees are paying more, he said Medicaid recipients would have to make sacrifices as well.
"The one thing he has in his favor is tremendous backbone," says Mr. Freyne. "I learned years ago, he's a man who should never be underestimated."