OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean is doing well in New England, but faces obstacles in conservative Oklahoma.
Dean, a former Vermont governor, has begun running television ads to try to catch up with Democratic candidates who are better known in the state.
So has North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who has visited the state a half dozen times in an effort to increase awareness of his candidacy.
Dean's biggest challenge may be to shed his liberal image and ``strike a comfort level with the people of Oklahoma,'' says Jay Parmley, state chairman of the Democratic Party.
Parmley knows of no polls to show who is leading early in the state among Democrats, but thinks Edwards, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt and Florida Sen. Bob Graham ``can compete very strongly.
``They all fit the conservative to moderate mold. I think Oklahomans can vote for either one of them and also vote for them in November.''
Many perceive Lieberman and Gephardt to have an early advantage in Oklahoma because they are better known.
Lieberman has a sister who lives in Norman and has drawn the support of such prominent Democrats as Attorney General Drew Edmondson.
Gephardt finished second in the 1988 presidential primary in Oklahoma, which was won by Al Gore, then a Tennessee senator. The eventual nominee, Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, finished third.
Coincidentally, former Oklahoma Gov. David Walters headed the Dukakis campaign in his state and now is chairman of Dean's Oklahoma effort.
Parmley concedes that whoever wins the Democratic nomination will be the underdog against President Bush in a state that has voted Democratic in a presidential election only once since 1948.
For the most part, Oklahoma has been ignored by Democratic presidential candidates in the recent past, but that stopped this year when the state moved its primary up to Feb. 3, a week after New Hampshire.
Most of the candidates have visited Oklahoma at least twice the past several months. One big exception is Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who is concentrating on his battle with Dean in New Hampshire.
Dean, Edwards, Gephardt, and Lieberman took part in a presidential forum last month in Stillwater, along with Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
Gary Jones, state Republican chairman, said Dean and Kucinich are out of step with Oklahoma voters in opposing the U.S. war effort in Iraq.
Jones also said ``it will not play well in Oklahoma'' that Dean signed a civil union law in Vermont, extending many benefits enjoyed by married heterosexuals to homosexual couples.
``Quite honestly, if we could hand pick a candidate to run against, it would be Dean or Kucinich,'' the GOP official said.
Chilton Marshall of Norman, state director of Dean's Oklahoma campaign, said Oklahomans appear to be warming to a grass-roots effort on Dean's behalf.
Marshall said it is ``a bit extreme'' to pin the liberal tag on Dean. ``He balances budgets. His ideas are across the board. They don't fit into a category.''
With the election months away, Parmley says anything can happen and the race in Oklahoma ``is really wide open.''
He said Dean thinks he can win in Oklahoma by capturing most of the party's ``more liberal or progressive voters'' while the moderate and conservative vote is split among the other candidates.
Forty-seven delegates to state and district conventions will be determined by the election, along with eight alternates.
Unlike the winner-take-all GOP primary, Democrats award delegates on a percentage of the vote. The first-place candidate will get roughly half the delegates.
Others will be determined by congressional district, but a candidate has to get at least 15 percent of the vote in a district to get any delegates.