HENNIKER, N.H. - Howard Dean says he didn't set out to become the anti-war candidate in the 2004 Democratic presidential contest. "I had no idea this would happen to me," he admitted as his two-car caravan sped across snowy New Hampshire.
The former Vermont governor, a physician by training, initially made universal health insurance the centerpiece of his long-shot campaign. But his sustained attack on President Bush's "reckless adventure" in Iraq is what's generating ripples of excitement in the early primary and caucus states.
As the war talk along the Potomac echoes out on the campaign trail, Dean's candidacy is filling a void: a candidate who shares the anti-war views of many Democratic voters.
The potential for such a candidate is enormous, if opinion surveys are any guide.
At least half the nation's Democratic voters oppose using U.S. military force to remove Saddam Hussein from power, according to the latest national polling. In Iowa, where the presidential voting begins, anti-war sentiment runs even higher.
Most of the party's best-known presidential contenders appear vulnerable on the war issue. Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, and Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who is formally declaring his candidacy today, voted in favor of the congressional resolution authorizing Bush to use force against Iraq.
Dean, who says he would have voted against the resolution, rarely misses an opportunity to attack his rivals for what he calls their failure to stand up to Bush. In an Iowa speech this week, he criticized Democrats in Washington "who were worried about political positioning for the presidential contest" for giving Bush a blank check to wage war against Iraq.
With so much running room to the left of the current field of Democratic candidates - and with liberals still the party's dominant faction - a fresh crop of presidential hopefuls is rushing into the 2004 race. Each of the newcomers opposes Bush's policy in the Persian Gulf.
Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who voted against the war resolution, and former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois are expected to file candidacy papers today. The Rev. Al Sharpton of New York is already running as a peace candidate.
Two others who have spoken out against Bush's Iraq plans - former Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a former supreme allied commander in Europe - have said they are thinking about running.
Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who voted against the war resolution, is expected to decide by April whether to launch a full-scale campaign. He is recuperating from open-heart surgery to replace an aortic valve.
With the exception of Graham, the latest candidates are even darker horses than Dean. At the very least, they will have to scramble to catch the 54-year-old Vermonter, whose daylong visit to New Hampshire this week was the 26th of his campaign.
About 50 activists gathered Sunday morning in a Portsmouth living room enthusiastically greeted Dean's assault on Bush's "foolish" foreign policy.
But Dean went on to say that he is "not a pacifist." If Saddam Hussein posed an immediate danger to the United States, Dean said, he would not hesitate to use unilateral military force to remove him. But the Bush administration has never made the case that there is an imminent threat, said Dean, who calls an invasion of Iraq "the wrong war at the wrong time."
To applause, Dean argued that the United States should be more concerned with the dangers posed by North Korea's nuclear program and the al-Qaida terrorist network.
New Hampshire isn't the anti-war hotbed that Iowa and other states are. But many here remember how opposition to the Vietnam War helped Democratic maverick Eugene McCarthy drive Lyndon B. Johnson from the White House by embarrassing him in the state's 1968 presidential primary.
How far the Iraq issue can carry Dean, or any anti-war candidate, in the 2004 contest is by no means clear. Interviews with Democratic voters in the state found that many of those who are strongly anti-war don't consider Iraq a litmus-test issue.
Rick Katzenberg of Amherst opposes military action but won't rule out supporting a Democratic candidate who voted in favor of the war resolution. But that vote, he said, "is a major hurdle they will have to climb back over" in order to gain his support.
Others noted that, as U.S. forces mass for a possible invasion in the next few weeks, war in Iraq could be a fading memory when the primaries begin in January.
But "even if Iraq becomes moot six months from now, Dean is going to be a vastly more visible and credible candidate because of what he's saying now," said Peter S. Smith, a Durham lawyer and party activist.
Like Democratic insiders in Washington, who have been tracking Dean's slow climb in the early Iowa and New Hampshire polls, Smith says Dean faces an uphill battle to become financially competitive with the other candidates. A presidential campaign will need at least $10 million to $20 million by the year's end to compete in next winter's compressed series of big-state primaries, Democrats say.
Dean has hired six fund-raisers for his skeletal campaign operation, based in Burlington, Vt. By his own account, the Iraq issue is helping attract financial support, both from grass-roots Democrats and from big-money types who can tap a network of contributors. The first test will come when the campaigns file fund-raising reports in April.
Last weekend, Dean picked up the support of longtime party activist Gary Hirshberg, president of Stonyfield Farms yogurt company. At a campaign event at his spacious home outside Concord last weekend, Hirshberg praised Dean as a "very straight talker" and a "beacon of hope and rationality" on the Iraq issue. Hirshberg, who has agreed to raise money for Dean's campaign, handed the candidate a $4,000 check, the maximum contribution for a couple.
Like some other early Dean backers, Hirshberg has a history of supporting outsider candidates, including Jimmy Carter and Paul E. Tsongas, both of whom won the New Hampshire primary.
In a state that expects to see presidential candidates up close and often, Dean benefits from being an out-of-office politician who can campaign full time.
He'll need that time to get better acquainted with voters. A recent national poll found that only one out of every 100 Americans could name him as a presidential candidate. Dean isn't much better known in next-door New Hampshire, which has little in common culturally with Vermont and doesn't get its news from that state's TV stations or newspapers.
The 11 years he spent as governor are as big a mystery here as anywhere else. Even the former head of the New Hampshire medical association, who came to hear Dean speak at a house in Nashua, confessed that he didn't know much about the universal health plan in Vermont that Dean hopes to make a model for the nation.
Perhaps voters will come to know him as the West Wing candidate. Like TV's President Jeb Bartlet, he is a former New England governor married to a doctor. He already has the endorsement of actor Martin Sheen, who plays Bartlet and is one of Hollywood's leading anti-war activists.
At least for now, though, his ticket out of obscurity could be a war in Iraq.
As darkness fell Sunday, 75 Democrats packed a living room in the small college town of Henniker to meet the candidate. Retired physics professor William Hatt urged Dean "to tell us how to turn off this juggernaut going to war."
He also shook Dean's hand. That qualifies Dean to become the next presidential nominee, according to Hatt, who says he has pressed the flesh of every Democrat who won the nomination back to George McGovern, the anti-war candidate of 1972.