He has no national organization, little staff and no real campaign Web site, yet enthusiasts are comparing Dean to former President Jimmy Carter and Republican iconoclast Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Less optimistic but still positive comparisons also can be made of Dean to defeated former presidential candidates Bruce Babbitt and Bill Bradley -- Democrats outside the mainstream who attracted limited but fervent support.
"I think there are some similarities between me and Bill Bradley," Dean said, "although I am shorter."
A 53-year-old physician whose wife is also a physician, Dean wears corny ties and gives windy, detailed answers to questions about his cornerstone issues -- children, health care and balanced budgets. When he travels, he stays at the home of a local supporter or party activist, where he dutifully makes his bed.
But in an early field already crowding with slick, moneyed, Washington-insider candidates such as Sen. John Kerry from Massachusetts and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Dean's earnest and quixotic candidacy is generating a familiar sort of buzz.
"I picked him out as my candidate after seeing him a number of times on C-SPAN," said George Appleby, a Des Moines attorney who is helping Dean locally. "The first time I saw him speak, I thought, `Here is the quintessential Democratic wonk, someone who wants to do the right thing.' "