(CNSNews.com) - Vermont's Democratic Gov. Howard Dean, whose legalization of same-sex unions thrust him onto the national political stage in 2000, recently set up a federal political action committee, paving the way for a possible presidential bid in 2004.
Dean's political support in the Green Mountain State plummeted after he signed the controversial civil unions bill into law behind closed doors in April 2000. He barely won re-election in November of that year, and recently announced he would not seek re-election in 2002.
But political observers said the reason Dean, a charismatic physician who has governed the state for 10 years, is backing away from another campaign for the Statehouse is not because he's afraid he'll lose, but because he has set his sights on higher office.
"He thinks he's got a chance at it, and he knows if he runs for it, he can make money," said Craig Bensen, a Dean critic and vice president of Take It to the People, a grassroots organization.
"The best he's hoping for is vice president, and he sees himself as having a lot to offer to a Democratic ticket," Bensen added.
Dean, 53, filed the paperwork creating the "Fund For a Healthy America" earlier this month, putting himself in the political company of fellow Democrats Al Gore and Sen. Joe Lieberman, who have already established PACs.
He denied the move means he has made a decision about running for the White House. "That's an enormous commitment and there are a lot of things that have to be shaken out before I make a decision like that," Dean told reporters Monday.
Analysts said his appetite for higher office was whetted in 1996, when Dean chaired the National Governors' Association. He even flirted with a 2000 presidential bid, and talked about his ambitions with then-Vice President Al Gore in the White House in 1997.
Gore was lukewarm to the idea, and Dean dropped the plan after a poll showed Vermonters were cool to the notion of their governor trying to run the state while campaigning for president.
But in a short time, he had been able to raise $1 million in campaign funds. In a national campaign, Dean's support of civil unions would bring him a large, activist constituency among politically influential homosexual rights supporters, and give him a head start among Democrats in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.
Dean is consolidating his support among homosexual advocacy groups, observers said. He was keynote speaker at a recent private luncheon for the board of directors of the Human Rights Campaign, one of the most powerful homosexual advocacy groups in the country. He was also a keynote speaker at a homosexual rights group in San Diego.
In a presidential campaign, Dean would have the overwhelming support of the national media, which polls show are considerably more supportive of homosexual advocacy than the American public.
The governor also is looking for a national platform for his idea of single-payer health care reform, a system not unlike Canada's, which critics claim has accentuated Vermont's health care crisis and driven most insurers out of the state.
"Governor Dean is defending his pseudo single-payer system that offers the worst of all worlds - no choice, no competition, no accountability, and even more cost," said Ruth Dwyer, a former Republican candidate for governor.
Dean said he likely wouldn't decide on a presidential run until he leaves the governor's office.