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WASHINGTON, April 14 (JTA)--On a recent trek around the U.S. capital seeking support from pro-Israel lobbyists and Reform movement activists, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean may have been the only non-Jew in the room.
But Dean, the former governor of Vermont, should be used to that. It's the same way in his own home.
Dean, a Congregationalist, has a Jewish wife, and both his children, 17-year-old Paul and 18-year-old Anne, have chosen to identify as Jews.
Passover played a large role in that decision, Dean told JTA in a recent interview.
"We were sort of a mixed family; we do celebrate both Christian and Jewish holidays," Dean said.
But the family rituals around the seder were what really led them to decide they wanted to be Jewish."
The grandfather of Judith Steinberg, Dean's wife, was a Conservative rabbi in Winnipeg, Canada, but the governor's children were not given any formal religious education, and they did not become Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
"The only thing I regret is that my children don't have as much religious education as I'd like, either in the Christian or Jewish side," the candidate said.
Nowadays, Dean seems to be getting an education of his own.
The transition from physician-turned-governor to presidential candidate means learning a lot about foreign policy issues and other hot topics.
But Dean, considered a long shot when he first entered the race, has made a splash as of late, exceeding expectations in fund-raising in the first quarter of the year.
He has been aided by a key figure in Democratic and Jewish politics, Steve Grossman, the former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the main pro-Israel lobby, and national chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Dean has also helped distinguish himself by speaking out against the war in Iraq, a view that has not changed even with the U.S. military successes.
"I believe this is the wrong war at the wrong time, and I've said that repeatedly," he said. "I think that Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria are all more dangerous to Israel than Iraq. I also think that North Korea and Iran are more dangerous to the United States than Iraq."
Dean said he believed that U.S. oil policy is directly linked to the terrorism and anti-American and anti-Israel sentiment in much of the Arab world.
He says oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia are supporting terrorist groups like Hamas and preaching hate in the classroom, but the United States is turning a blind eye.
"I think those who teach hate are enemies of America, and I am deeply concerned that the Saudis are funding fundamentalist Islamic schools, teaching small children to hate Christians, Jews and Americans," he said.
As long as we are dependent on Middle East oil, American presidents will often lack the spine to stand up to the Saudis and those who supply us oil."
A different oil policy as well as greater engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could have paved the way for progress on that front, he said.
"You can't get to a two-state solution, which I support, unless you can guarantee Israel security and you can't do that as long as there is terror going on which is funded by our oil money," he said.
He proposes gas conservation as well as 10 percent Ethanol in everybody's gas tanks to help reduce U.S. dependence on oil-rich Arab countries.
Furthermore, he said, focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more likely to produce an Arab democracy in the region than a regime change in Iraq.
After the demise of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, he said, "it's more likely there will be a Palestinian democracy than there will be a democracy in Iraq."
Despite his opposition to the war, Dean received a warm welcome earlier this month at a Jewish gathering largely supportive of the war.
At a meet-and-greet session after the official festivities one night at the annual AIPAC policy conference, Dean spoke to a capacity crowd in a small room, shaking hands for several hours and progressing slowly to the exit, encircled by well-wishers.
Some political analysts have wondered whether Dean's candidacy will fizzle now that the U.S.-led forces have prevailed.
Dean dismisses such speculation, as well as any suggestion that his views are based on political considerations.
"I take that position by assessing our defense needs and our foreign policy," he said. "I didn't take it with an eye on the polls."
Dean believes the Bush administration should be giving Israel $4 billion in military aid to fight terrorism, not the $1 billion it proposed last month.
And he says he is wary of international participation in the "road map" for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but would not "reject out of hand" the United States partnering with the United Nations, European Union and Russia.
Dean's name first made national headlines in 1999, when he signed a law making Vermont the first state to recognize civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.
Speaking to a gathering of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism earlier this month, Dean emphasized his domestic agenda, saying, "The problems of America are being ignored because of what's going on elsewhere."
He reiterated his call for universal health care for everyone under 25 and the preservation of affirmative-action policies.
Affirmative action works to "counteract our natural tendency" to hire people that look like ourselves, he said.
On other domestic issues, Dean opposes charitable choice and school-voucher policies that he says blur the lines between church and state.
He has clashed with many Democratic loyalists, however, on gun control. Dean favors enforcement of current federal gun-control laws but wants future laws to be dictated by the states, claiming that "gun control" means something very different in Vermont and New York City.
Dean is stylizing his campaign very much like former president Jimmy Carter's, choosing to stay in the homes of campaign supporters instead of in hotels. He hopes that, as did Carter and Bill Clinton, he will be able to appeal to a Democratic electorate who wants a Washington outsider willing to speak out.
"The only way to beat George Bush is to stand up to him, not to try and be like him,'' he said.
(JTA Staff Writer Rachel Pomerance contributed to this report.)