Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean has a vision of where he'd like to take the nation. It turns out to be the 1960s.

In campaign stop after campaign stop, in overheated high school gyms and smoky union halls, Dean repeatedly offers this misty-eyed homage to that turbulent decade:

"When I was 21 years old," he says, "it was the end of the civil rights era, and America had paid an enormous price. Martin Luther King had been killed. Bobby Kennedy was dead. A lot of other people who are less well-known, including four little girls in a Birmingham church, had died so that we could have equal rights under the law for all Americans.

"But it was also a time of great hope. Medicare had passed. Head Start had passed. The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the first African American justice [was appointed to] the United States Supreme Court. We felt like we were all in it together, that we all had responsibility for this country. . . . That [strong schools and communities were] everybody's responsibility. That if one person was left behind, then America wasn't as strong or as good as it could be or as it should be. That's the kind of country that I want back."

It is a stirring piece of rhetoric, and one that inevitably draws cheers and sustained applause for the former Vermont governor as he campaigns through this state, which holds its first-in-the-nation Democratic caucus in three weeks. In this part of the farm belt last week, Dean used it as his closer almost every place he spoke.

His references to the '60s, Dean makes clear in an interview, are something personal. "We felt the possibilities were unlimited then," he said last week. "We were making such enormous progress. It resonates with a lot of people my age. People my age really felt that way."

As history, however, Dean's memories of the era are selective. Rather than the time of great national unity and purpose he describes, the 1960s were a period of great upheaval, and surely rank among the most divisive for America in the 20th century.

By 1969, the year Dean turned 21, the Vietnam War had split the country, fomenting sometimes violent protests on college campuses. Several long, hot summers of urban riots had turned cities into powder kegs of racial tension. Despite passage of the federal Civil Rights Act five years earlier, segregation and discrimination lingered, and poverty and educational disparity were rampant. Employment opportunities for women and minorities were still highly limited. Politically, the country was deeply divided as well, with Richard M. Nixon winning a narrow 1968 presidential election over Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey and independent George C. Wallace.

As Georgetown University history professor Michael Kazin puts it, "A lot of people would be glad not to go back to the '60s."

During this period, Dean had no apparent involvement in the emerging causes and issues of the day. After entering Yale University in 1967, he was a popular but unremarkable student who took no role in campus protests against the war, or in a local issue, the trials of members of the Black Panther party in New Haven in early 1970, friends have said. After avoiding military service with a student deferment, he was eligible to serve by 1971, but presented evidence of a bad back and was rejected. He subsequently spent nine months in Aspen, Colo., skiing and working odd jobs, such as washing dishes and pouring concrete. He then became a stockbroker, following his father, a prominent figure on Wall Street, before entering medical school.

Nevertheless, Dean's nostalgic message does seem to register with some of the people who turn out for his events. "I think he's absolutely right," says Patsy Ramacitti, a Dean supporter from Bettendorf. "During the time of Vietnam, the people of this country were way ahead of the people in Washington about what should be done. His references were capturing that."

"From what I remember of the '60s, it was the era of the Vietnam War," said Elden Hagen, 50, an undecided voter from Stockton. "I can remember the coverage of civil rights on the evening news. I was just a kid, but a lot of people can relate to some of that. I think it really fires up younger voters."

Some expert observers think the message dovetails with Dean's status as an outsider and registers with a key bloc of primary voters: older liberals who remember the 1960s in similarly warm and hopeful terms.

Dante J. Scala, a political science professor at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, says Dean is tacitly summoning up the political ghosts of Sens. Eugene McCarthy (Minn.) and George S. McGovern (S.D.), two Democratic presidential candidates who, like Dean, took on their party establishment in 1968 and 1972, respectively.

"For liberals in this state, those years were the high-water mark," he says. In those primaries, "they made McCarthy and McGovern into credible candidates, and they succeeded in creating two earthquakes in the Democratic Party. Dean is doing the same thing. He's hearkening back to those heady days of the late 1960s when liberals were ascendant."

As for more moderate voters, Scala says, "They might be more wary of it, but they're not turned off by it. The problem for them is that they haven't found a candidate who lights them up the way Dean lights up reformed-minded Democrats here."

Kazin, the Georgetown professor and co-author of "America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s," pegs Dean's message earlier in the decade, which Kazin calls "the high point of liberalism." This was a period when the optimism of President John F. Kennedy's New Frontier gave way to President Lyndon B. Johnson's anti-poverty programs, such as Head Start.

"He's evoking a sort of grass-roots version of LBJ's Great Society," says Kazin. "Liberals did have that vision. Obviously, the '60s were a time of tremendous division in the country, but liberals felt that things were going their way. It's certainly a contested period, but he's trying to claim it for liberals, which is quite appropriate."

Adds Kazin, "Every political faith has a golden age. Conservatives like the 1980s, when we won the Cold War and America stood tall again. If you're liberal, you remember the '60s the way Dean is doing now."

Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, right, and farmer Kevin Middleswart bite into hamburgers following a campaign appearance in Iowa.