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Carter: Dean's chances 'quite good' in N.H., Iowa, uncertain elsewhere

Former president hasn't endorsed a candidate yet

Former President Jimmy Carter:
Former President Jimmy Carter: "I want to choose the strongest Democratic candidate."

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LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Former President Jimmy Carter said he thinks Howard Dean's prospects in the upcoming Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary look rosy and that the Democratic presidential front-runner's "inherently" conservative political persona will emerge as the primary season heads through uncharted waters.

"At the present time, his chances in Iowa and New Hampshire look quite, quite good. After that, though, he'll go through a much wider range of states, including some in the deep South. And I think that's much more uncertain," Carter said in an interview to be broadcast on Larry King Live Friday night.

And he said the upstart candidate, being cast by some Democrats and Republicans as a ultra-liberal, "is inherently a very conservative political person."

Carter hasn't endorsed a candidate and said he doesn't have "a real preference at this point." His son, Chip, is supporting and helping the Dean campaign.

"My overwhelming desire...," Carter said, "is to help the candidate that, in the last stages, maybe even of the primary, I think will do the best job in defeating George Bush in November. I want to choose the strongest Democratic candidate."

He indicated that before he makes an endorsement, he needs to let the winnowing process in the primary campaign play itself out, just as it did during his own startling campaign in 1976.

As for Dean, Carter said he and the first lady met with him more than a year ago when Dean sought them out to share his plans to seek the Democratic nomination for president.

The one-term Democratic president said Dean asked "how we addressed the original launching of our campaign" and wanted to know how the Carter campaign judged the importance of Iowa, New Hampshire and other primaries.

Carter is similar to Dean in that he pursued the presidency as a relatively unknown, untested former governor. Carter had been governor of Georgia, and Dean was governor of Vermont.

"We shared our experiences with him, and we talked to two or three other candidates, as well. And I was impressed with him because of his enthusiasm but didn't think he had a chance, to be honest with you.

"And so his campaign has pretty well followed closely in the same track as mine did. With one exception. He's got enormous income from his Internet connections."

Carter was asked about fears among Democrats that Dean could suffer the same fate as George McGovern, the South Dakota Democrat who lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon in 1972.

"I don't have that fear. Otherwise, I'm not expressing any preference among the candidates," he said.

Carter said if Dean gets the nomination, he will "begin to put forward his conservative, or more conservative, credentials."

"I think his record in Vermont indicates that, on fiscal matters and on many other matters -- you know, gun control and things like that -- he has a very conservative record."

Carter acknowledged that Dean's staunch opposition to the Iraq war -- a position widely associated with the left -- has been his top issue.

While other candidates have put across that idea, he said Dean "was the first one. And the most consistent and the most vociferous."

Asked about Hillary Clinton, the former first lady and now the junior U.S. senator from New York, Carter said it would be a "mistake" if she entered the presidential race now.

But, "I don't think there's any doubt that she would get the nomination if she ran," he said.

Carter said she has "made clear" she didn't plan to pursue the presidency or vice presidency.

"But I don't have any doubt that she has thoughts about the White House in her mind for the future. I haven't talked to her about it, but I think that's common knowledge," he said.

Carter said he believes Clinton has done a "good job" but needs "a few years to separate herself from her husband," former President Bill Clinton.

She needs to "let the general public know that she can stand on her own feet and that she has her own agenda and she's a good political player on her own," Carter said.

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