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Dean says Democrats moving 'too far to the right'

Former Vermont governor says he can take on Bush

Howard Dean talks to CNN's Larry King about his campaign.
Howard Dean talks to CNN's Larry King about his campaign.

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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Rejecting criticism from some of his Democratic brethren that he is too liberal to be elected president, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean says that the real problem is that "the Republican Party and even my own party has simply moved too far to the right."

Dean, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, spoke Monday on CNN's Larry King Live from Burlington, Vermont.

"I am in the center," he said. "I balanced budgets. The president hasn't done so. I believe that states have the right to make their own gun laws, after enforcing the federal laws vigorously. There's nothing that's not centrist about me."

Dean, who was Vermont's lieutenant governor in 1991 when Gov. Richard Snelling died, balanced the state's budget for 11 consecutive years -- although Vermont is the only state in the union that does not require a balanced budget.

"They all say, 'He's so liberal,'" Dean said. "Well, if liberal is balancing budgets, please do call me a liberal. ... If you want jobs and investment in the country, you're going to have to have a Democrat because the Republicans simply can't handle money."

Democrats like Sen. Joseph Lieberman, also a candidate for the nomination, have criticized Dean, saying that his opposition to the Iraq war, in particular, would cost him against President Bush. Lieberman said Monday that nominating Dean would lead the party "into the political wilderness" and would be a "ticket to nowhere."

Dean said such criticisms don't get to him, and defended his opposition to the war.

"I think it's great that Saddam Hussein is not in power," he said, "but I would have approached it in a very different way. And I think the jury is still out in terms of how much danger to the United States this poses."

Afghanistan, he said, deserves more attention because the alliance between al Qaeda and the Taliban "was an issue for the national security of the United States."

Bush, he said, "has managed to alienate and humiliate all the very countries that we now need to help us maintain the peace both in Afghanistan and Iraq."

The president is also wrong, Dean said, in considering a federal measure to bar gay marriages. That, he said, is a matter best left to the states -- a position he said Vice President Dick Cheney expressed during the debates in 2000.

start quoteIf liberal is balancing budgets, please do call me a liberal.end quote
-- Howard Dean

Vermont, he said, chose to enact a law allowing gays to join in civil unions, and not marriages, because "marriage is a religious institution ... and we're not in the business of telling churches who they can and cannot marry."

"But in terms of civil rights and equal rights under the law for all Americans, that is the state's business, and that's why we started civil unions," he said.

Dean credited his emergence from obscure governor to a leading Democratic contender to an energized campaign that is reaching traditional Democratic voters, who are bringing new people on board.

He is getting thousands of small donations, he said, a technique the conservative right has used for years to support Republican candidates.

Dean said that he would not launch an independent campaign for president should one of the other Democrats get the nod at next year's convention.

"I will support the nominee," he said. "It is essential that George Bush not be re-elected for the future of this country. It is essential for our economy. It's essential, so we can regain the respect we had around the world."

"Any one of (the Democratic candidates) would be better than the president they have now," he said. "But what our party really has to have is some backbone."

That includes, he said, not voting for Bush measures like the tax cut programs, which the Vermont governor said "have really harmed our economy and taken jobs away from Americans."

Dean said the only way to beat Bush in the next election is to confront him head-on.

"What the American people are going to see, should I get the nomination, is a Democrat who is not afraid to be a Democrat again," the 59-year-old internist said.

"In Washington, the game for too long among the Democrats was 'Let's try to be a little bit like (President Bush),' and that's not going to get us elected," he said. "The only way to beat George Bush is to stand up to him."

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