WASHINGTON Howard Dean said he would like to balance the budget in his first term even if it means limiting spending on domestic programs dear to Democrats.
But if he beats nine other Democrats to capture the nomination and then ousts President Bush, Dean said he might have to keep the budget in the red beyond four years to fund his plan for mass transit, renewable energy, road construction, broadband telecommunications and school building.
"I am determined to get rid of the deficit," Dean said in an hourlong interview with reporters and editors from The Associated Press. Later he added, "I am willing to run a deficit longer than I'd like to in order to create jobs."
Dean has yet to release his economic plan but disclosed some elements during the interview. He said he and his advisers are still deciding whether he can pledge to bring government spending into the black by 2008.
"That's an internal debate we are having," Dean said. "I'd like to do that. The economists I'm working with think that is going to be very tough."
The front-running candidate often boasts that he had a record of balancing the budget while he was Vermont governor. He holds that record up as part of his argument that he is not too liberal to beat Bush.
In 1995, he said he supported a balanced-budget amendment but now says he would rather not have one so he can have flexibility if in the White House.
"So you can put me down as waffling on the balanced budget amendment," he joked in the Friday interview. "I'm already down as waffling on that one. I've waffled before, I'll waffle again."
Dean said he would not cut military spending in his quest to balance the budget. He also would increase spending for health insurance, special education and grants for urban revitalization.
Other than that, "everything is on the table," he said, suggesting he may be willing to hold spending on some programs, such as veterans affairs.
"You do not have to make cuts to balance the budget," he explained. "What you have to do is restrain spending."
Dean's failure to list Medicaid among the programs he would protect drew criticism from rival Dick Gephardt, who said the answer to the nation's budget problems is not to cut Medicaid.
Dean insisted that Bush's tax cuts have not benefited the middle class because they have been offset by the increasing cost of college tuition and higher property taxes. Asked about people who do not own homes or send their children to college, he acknowledged that some people have gotten a tax cut.
"Is that true for 100 percent of the middle class? No. There's some percentage of people it's not true for but a vast majority of middle-class people in this country it is absolutely true" that they did not get a tax cut.
When asked about his reputation for having a temper, he replied: "I have a sense of righteous indignation at times. I really try, but I don't like it when people bend the truth or make stuff up."
The interview came days before Tuesday's deadline for candidates to report their fund-raising totals since July 1. Campaign officials said Dean had raised about $12.5 million through Sunday and hoped to report a total of $15 million by Tuesday. That would be two to three times as much as any of the other candidates is expected to report.
Dean showed great affection for former President Clinton, saying that Clinton "had more political talent in his little finger than anybody since Franklin Roosevelt."
On foreign policy, Dean said one of his first goals as president would be to restore relations with France, Germany and other nations angered by the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
"I think it can be done reasonably quickly. There are some honest differences of opinion we're going to have with other countries," he said. "The trick is not to make it personal.'
Dean said Bush fell into that trap, a "dreadful mistake."Comment on this story
Making up with Germany will be easier than with the French, he said, "because of the traditional interesting relationship going all the way back to (former French President Charles) DeGaulle between the French and the United States."
On missile defense, Dean said he would keep part of the Bush administration's missile defense program but end construction of interceptor missile sites at Fort Greely, Alaska.
The interceptors, strongly backed by Bush, would be designed to smash into a missile headed toward the United States while the warhead was traveling through space.
"We're not going to develop things that aren't going to work, and the majority of the tests have failed for the intercept phase," Dean said.