MONTPELIER, Vt. — Soon after he won his first election as Vermont's governor in 1992, Democrat Howard Dean summoned his party's leadership to his Capitol office here and delivered a lecture worthy of any tightfisted Republican.
The financier-turned-physician-turned-politician sternly warned that whatever lofty goals the legislators had in mind -- expanding preschool education, providing universal health care or toughening environmental laws -- none of it would happen if voters did not trust them with their money.
"He told us that the No. 1 concern for Democrats was how we handled the public purse," said former state Rep. Dick McCormack. "In many ways, that defined his whole administration."
Now that he is leading the pack of Democratic presidential contenders, Dean's gubernatorial record is facing intense scrutiny. Opponents, led by Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, charge that Dean balanced his state's budget by scrimping on key social programs for old, needy and disabled Vermonters.
Dean and his defenders dispute these allegations, insisting that no benefits were taken from anyone while he ran the state for almost 12 years, and that overall, spending on social services increased by a third. Dean and his supporters say the criticism obscures the complex choreography of balancing a state budget and overshadows a record that left Vermont in better fiscal shape than most states in recent years.
"It is just not accurate," said Sean Campbell, Dean's former finance commissioner. "We are a state of 600,000 and we have managed to support social services at levels that are remarkable compared to other states. What John Kerry and Dick Gephardt need to do is look at what programs were in Vermont when Dean took over, and what programs were there when he left."
The Vermont Constitution does not require a balanced budget. But starting with his determination to eradicate a $70-million deficit he inherited, Dean made economic stability his top priority. More than anything else, this focus on fiscal responsibility characterized his record.
Unlike the ideological presidential candidate who first distinguished himself by condemning the war in Iraq, Dean as governor was a pragmatist who ran his state with the blunt efficiency of a CEO. As a pro-business centrist, he was so out of step with the liberal Democratic majority in the Statehouse that he had to recruit a team of other legislative allies to make sure his budgetary goals would pass. To the consternation of many, he all but ignored issues such as civil unions for gays and lesbians as he steadfastly based decisions on the bottom line.
He demanded that department heads slice their own budgets. Sometimes, as a means of not-so-friendly persuasion, he threatened to sacrifice cherished programs, even in the areas that meant the most to him: children and the environment.
The former family-practice physician surrounded himself with a mostly female Cabinet that cynics dubbed "the nurses" because they so obligingly followed his orders. Often, Dean lapsed into lectures.
"He very much considered himself smarter than the rest of us," said McCormack, an admirer. "You learned to live with that."
With the governorship the most common path to the White House in recent decades, Dean's executive experience offers a glimpse of how he might govern the country, said UCLA political science professor Richard Rosecrance.
"As president, he would more likely bring his style as governor than to approximate his style as candidate," Rosecrance said. "The centrism that we have seen from him in Vermont is likely what we could expect from him as president."
After four years in the state Legislature, Dean was serving as lieutenant governor when Republican Gov. Richard Snelling suffered a fatal heart attack in 1991. Dean learned of Snelling's death while examining a patient in his office outside Burlington. He finished the exam and drove 45 minutes south to Montpelier.
In a state with two-year governor's terms -- a legacy of the Colonial fear of tyrants -- Dean soon won election in his own right. The course he then struck was so relentlessly moderate that Democrats ribbed Republicans about "their" governor. Harlan Sylvester, his chief economic advisor, said Dean responded by sticking firmly to the middle.
"He made the far right and the far left irrelevant," Sylvester said. "He just did it."
But Dean knew if he wanted a balanced budget -- not to mention leftover funds for children's issues and environmental protection -- he needed help. So he rounded up a handful of Democrats willing to buck their own party to support his fiscal agenda.
A local journalist dubbed these 15 or so state legislators the Blue Dogs, the nickname chosen by a faction of conservative Democrats in Washington about the same time. The Blue Dogs formed a coalition that championed Dean's budgets by siding with Republicans.