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His straight talk honed, Dean comes to Florida

Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Legislature should be "embarrassed" for stepping in to keep Terri Schiavo alive, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean said Tuesday.

"What business is it of the government to interfere with a private family matter of a right-to-die case?" the doctor and former Vermont governor asked hundreds of people at a Tallahassee Tiger Bay lunch. "I am tired of people in the Legislature thinking they have an M.D. when what they really have is a B.S."

It was a rare public Florida appearance for the Democratic presidential candidate, who had largely stayed out of the state while Bob Graham was still running for president.

With the 2004 election a year away, Dean showed Floridians in Jacksonville and Tallahassee the confident and blunt style that has won over so many Democratic activists in early primary states.

He also assured the crowd that he sees Bob Graham, who announced Monday he would not seek a fourth U.S. Senate term, as a strong contender to be his vice presidential pick.

"I told Bob Graham the day he made his decision to drop out (of the presidential race) that he was on the short list, and he is on the short list. He is one of the finest public servants in this country's history," Dean said.

Later, Dean told reporters that of the nine other Democratic contenders, he felt closest to Graham, who, like Dean, opposed the war in Iraq and has gubernatorial experience.

"He certainly is going to be very likely to have a place in a Dean administration if he wants one," Dean said.

The Tallahassee Tiger Bay crowd was largely made up of southern Democrats typically not inclined to embrace a blue-blood Yankee often painted as an antiwar liberal. Dean, though, surprised a lot of people.

"I am leaning to (retired Gen. Wesley) Clark, but I think I have to think again when I hear this fellow," said Dexter Douglass, former general counsel to Lawton Chiles. "It's very difficult for a New Englander to win, but this guy's got the potential to win."

Dean is leading his opponents in fundraising, is virtually tied for first place in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses in recent polls and is handily leading the field for the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary.

His opponents have been hammering him lately for saying he wants to be the candidate "for guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks."

Asked about that reference to a racially polarizing symbol, Dean noted he has long been saying Democrats can win over working class Southerners concerned about access to health care.

"We have got to stop having our elections in the South based on race, guns, God and gays and start having them on jobs and health insurance and a foreign policy that's consistent with American values," he said.

Dean held a morning "meet and greet" with Democrats in Jacksonville before flying to Tallahassee, where he was greeted by an overwhelmingly white and mostly young crowd of more than 100 supporters.

Penny Young, a state employee, said she is taken by Dean's creative campaign, including its heavy use of the Internet to keep in touch with grass-roots supporters and to raise money. He raised more than $25-million through September, with average contributions of $75.

In Tampa Bay on Tuesday, dozens of Dean supporters fanned out to major intersections, waving signs, dancing and trying to draw attention and spread Dean's name recognition.

"We wanted to wake people up to the fact that the presidential election is a year away, and it's time to start focusing on getting a new president," said Patrick Cannon, a community college teacher from Tampa.

In Tallahassee, Dean was just shy of committing to attend the state Democratic Party convention in December, even if the party decides to hold a nonbinding "straw poll" for party activists to choose their favorite candidate.

Party activists expect to hold such a vote, despite opposition from the Democratic National Committee and a promise by all nine candidates to boycott the convention if such a vote is planned.

"This is one of the most important states in the country, and it's one we plan to win in order to change the hands of the White House," he said. "So I can't imagine my passing up a chance to address the Democrats. We would prefer you not having a straw poll. I can't promise you."

_ Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or adamsptimes.com.

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