MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — Nearly a decade removed from his last presidential campaign, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has begun trying to influence the next race for the White House.
The fiery Democrat is visiting key states on the presidential calendar and meeting with former supporters, all while reminding people that Hillary Rodham Clinton likely will face Democratic competition should she seek the presidency in 2016.
Dean says he supports a prospective Clinton bid when asked about his intentions. But he's not ruling out himself as a Clinton challenger either.
"You never say never in this business because you don't know," Dean told The Associated Press on Monday when asked about his presidential ambitions shortly before delivering a speech in Manchester. "I still have plenty of fire. What is it going to be directed at is the question."
Dean, 64, plays down his interest in the presidency, blaming speculation on what he calls a misguided news media. But his actions three years before the next presidential contest highlight the imbalance between the political parties in the evolving 2016 field. Several Republican leaders are already jockeying for position publicly and privately. But would-be Democratic candidates are essentially paralyzed as Clinton contemplates her political future.
Dean, a blunt-spoken doctor-turned-political-activist, isn't among those Democrats sitting on their hands.
He described Clinton as "a pretty solid candidate" with "a vast amount of foreign policy experience."
"I don't think anybody gets a free ride when there's an open seat," he said when asked about a Clinton presidential run. "I'm sure there will be other candidates."
Dean visited Iowa over the summer and spent Monday in New Hampshire — the two states traditionally first and second on the presidential contest voting calendar. He shared a private dinner Monday with former supporters; the chief of staff to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, was among the attendees, he said.
Dean later delivered a health care policy speech to a standing room-only crowd at the Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College. He largely avoided presidential politics during his remarks, but the implications of his presence weren't lost on the politically savvy New Hampshire audience.
"He would be a solid candidate and he's done a good job organizationally, but I think his star isn't quite as bright as he'd want it to be if was going to run for president," state Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, a Democrat, said after the speech. "Hillary is the name of the game in presidential politics."
Indeed, much of New Hampshire's Democratic establishment has begun to pledge its allegiance to Clinton. Democratic strategists in Washington and elsewhere suggest there's little interest in seeing a Dean re-emergence on a national stage.
But he remains popular among his party's most passionate voters, a group that wields great influence in presidential primary elections.
Dean became a liberal hero during his unsuccessful 2004 presidential campaign and later served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He maintained his status as a progressive leader as founder and chairman of Democracy for America, the Vermont-based liberal advocacy organization where he still has an office.
His profile has shrunk in recent years, however.
Based in Vermont, Dean is a regular contributor on cable TV news, teaches part-time at three universities and serves as an adviser at a Washington lobbying firm.
As he has throughout his political career, he remains willing to criticize Democrats and Republicans.
"The establishment of the Democratic Party is still out of touch," he said, while later describing the GOP as "children."
"They don't know how to behave as adults," Dean said of Republicans. "When your idea is to shut down the government and get rid of the president — and that's what your platform is — it's not a serious party at this point."
But that should change, he said.
"I think serious people will get control of the party," he said. "But that's not the case now."