Washington (CNN) -- One year ago, Howard Dean, the former Democratic presidential contender and avatar of progressive sentiment, sat in a hotel lobby at the annual Netroots Nation conference in San Jose and held forth on Hillary Clinton's White House chances in 2016.
Dean made news.
Clinton "will not get a pass" in the 2016 Democratic primaries if she decides to run again, Dean said, an early warning shot from the left against the party establishment's anointed front-runner. Dean said he might make a repeat White House bid of his own, promising to agitate "other politicians" in the race on issues precious to liberals.
How things have changed. Today, Dean still thinks Clinton will have a challenger in the Democratic field -- maybe several. But he won't be one of them. And if Clinton does run, Dean sounds like he's ready to join the team.
"I am a huge Hillary Clinton fan," Dean told CNN in an interview. "I just am. Not because I hope to get a job. I know her; I've known her for a long time. I think she has an enormous mental capacity to do analysis and let the chips fall where they may."
"If she is president, which I hope she is, I think she is going to be a terrific president," added Dean, who stopped into Clinton's book signing event in the Hamptons last weekend and posed for a picture with the former secretary of state.
The kind words from Dean aren't quite an endorsement in the traditional campaign sense, but praise from one of the left's most recognizable figures is sure to please Clinton allies who are working to build up an aura of inevitability around her and blunt a serious primary challenge. The Ready for Hillary super PAC has already secured pseudo-endorsements from New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Virginia's two senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.
Clinton's incremental politics don't quite square with those of Dean, who rose to national prominence in 2004 as a fierce and noisy critic of the war in Iraq, a military action supported by Clinton. While Clinton is not the cold-blooded foreign policy hawk she's often caricatured as -- she's a devotee of so-called "smart power" and institution-building -- her Iraq war vote in 2002 and her occasional splits with President Barack Obama on Syria and Afghanistan have not endeared her to her party's anti-interventionist wing.
Her differences with Obama resurfaced last week in an interview with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg. Clinton drew a line between her own views and the President's cautious foreign policy realism, expressing concern over the administration's handling of the civil war in Syria. She said, "Great nations need organizing principles -- and 'don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle." The remark ricocheted around the Internet, and Clinton called the President to make amends.
Dean, though, aggressively took Clinton's side. "How can she not triangulate? She is running for President of the United States," the former Vermont governor said. "You think if she comes out as a clone of anybody she has any chance at winning? People don't want clones as president. So of course she is going to say stuff that's different. So what? This is news?"
His aggressive defense of Clinton bloomed into a lengthy rant against the state of the political news media and the "amplification chamber" that Clinton will have to navigate if she decides to run.
"I find all that to be worthless," Dean said. "I don't pay any attention to that crap. I was at a meeting in Washington the other day with two very high-ranking people who I won't mention, and one turned to the other and said, 'Did you see that editorial in The Washington Post?' And without being cranky, and without saying anything, I said to myself, 'You're a free man.' Because why would anyone read The Washington Post, or certainly the editorial page of The Washington Post?
"I just don't have any patience for this sturm und drang that goes on in what passes for media these days. I really don't read most of the stuff that's written about inside the Beltway kerfuffles like that because I think it's silly."
Clinton's biggest challenge will be generational, Dean said, echoing a previous observation he's made about the putative Democratic front-runner. Clinton is 14 years older than Obama and would be 69 on Inauguration Day 2017.
"Hillary, she has been on the scene since, what, 1992?" he said. "To elect Hillary, the country would have to do something we've only done once in my lifetime, with Reagan over Carter, which is the country would have to go back a generation. Usually, you don't go back."
Still, he said Clinton "might be a great candidate because of that."
"It's fairly likely the Republicans are going to nominate somebody who is going to be considered pretty flawed," he said, handicapping the GOP field.
Dean called Ted Cruz and Rand Paul "the wing-nut brothers." Clinton, he said, would be a "perfect foil" for Paul, who is, in his words, "a guy who wants to turn back the clock to the 1840s and all this other crap and pretend he is a libertarian but doesn't want women to exercise any rights over their own lives. She is going to mop the floor with him."
"If it's Christie, people are going to look at Bridge-gate and Hoboken-gate and all that stuff and go, 'Why not join with a safe person who is a proven commodity?' 'Fuggedaboutit' is not a proven commodity. The only candidate that I would be concerned about is Jeb Bush, but then you get more of the same, and how is he going to denounce his brother's presidency?" he said.
As for the potential Democratic field, Dean said Clinton will not be "an acclamation candidate" and predicted that "there's going to be opposition, and it's not going to be lightweight opposition."
He gushed over Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who professes to have no interest in running, and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who increasingly seems likely to jump in the race.
Warren, he said, is "new and refreshing" and "incredibly straightforward."
Dean said he is "a big fan" of O'Malley and said he would make a name for himself if he runs.
"I have spoken to him about this," Dean said. "He came to see me about it a year ago. He is a very solid guy who has done a terrific job as governor. I like the way he thinks, and I like the way he approaches problems and gets things done. But Hillary Clinton has 100% name recognition and huge favorability numbers. It's a very uphill climb for somebody who wants to run against her."
Clinton, he said, "is best prepared" though he wants to "see who her campaign team is" before deciding if he will formally endorse her.
"I have not seen anything that alarms me about Hillary Clinton at all," he said. "I actually thought the Diane Sawyer interview, minus the remark about 'We were broke when we left the White House,' was a great intro for her, because it showed her as her own person with the positives and the negatives.
"She could get elected without being her own person, but if she wants to get elected with real mandate, she has to be herself."