It was a brisk winter evening outside the Elks Lodge here on Dec. 2, 1998, but inside, Gregory Costa was on the hot seat. Angry members of Vermont's two largest gun rights groups had a pointed question for the National Rifle Association's state representative: Why did he go against the wishes of many of them and endorse Howard Dean for governor?

"He got a real hard time that night," said Monty Butterfield, president of Gun Owners of Vermont, who was at the meeting. "People just felt that Costa hadn't listened, that Howard Dean was not the supporter of gun rights or the friend of sportsmen that the NRA seemed to think he was."

As governor of Vermont -- a small, rural state whose gun laws are among the least restrictive in the country -- Dean earned a national reputation as an opponent of gun control and worked closely with the NRA, a requirement for survival in this state's politics.

But he also feuded with some of Vermont's most ardent gun rights advocates, who saw him as unwilling to take strong stands on firearms issues, attend their candidate forums or respond to their questionnaires. The Burlington Free Press recently described his support for gun rights while governor as "more platonic than passionate." That was enough to earn the NRA's backing -- and A rating -- in eight consecutive elections, but it disappointed other gun enthusiasts.

Now, as the gun-friendly front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Dean is again walking a fine line on firearms issues, staking out a position he hopes will be palatable to liberal primary voters while winning him support among conservatives as he looks to the general election.

"It allows him to show he's not a doctrinaire liberal on all issues, which is a real asset, as long as it doesn't alienate his base," said Robert J. Spitzer, author of the book "The Politics of Gun Control."

Dean favors strict enforcement of federal gun laws but says further legislation should be left to the states to decide, an approach one NRA official has called "schizophrenic."

"The $64,000 question has always been: If the legislature had passed a gun-control bill, would Howard Dean have signed it?" said Cindy Hill, a Middlebury, Vt., lawyer and gun rights advocate. "Let's just say the level of confidence among gun owners was not high."

"We're not too happy with Dr. Dean's positions, either," said Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, who said guns bought in states such as Vermont are used in crimes elsewhere. "As governor of Vermont he had a much different set of responsibilities than he would as president."

Dean has said he believes that Al Gore would be president had he not so strongly supported gun control in the 2000 campaign, and that Dean's middle-ground approach makes him the most electable Democrat in the field. For too long, he often says, candidates from his party have lost votes in southern and western states over issues of "race, guns, God and gays."

Dean has been telling audiences in Iowa and North Dakota this week that the NRA can't "pin" the anti-gun label on him, because he believes states, not the federal government, should set gun laws tailored to their needs and problems. "My position on guns is more conservative," Dean said, than those of his rivals.

"Howard Dean is doing what he has always done. He never moved in lock step with any one group," said Vermont state Sen. Matt Dunne (D). "His record on guns was consistent with that."

Hunting Heritage

Vermont has a centuries-old hunting heritage, almost no violent crime and a population (just over 600,000) smaller than that of most major cities. Its major gun laws are a ban on carrying weapons in schools and some government buildings and on shooting deer from a car. There are no licensing or registration requirements, there is no prohibition on carrying a concealed weapon, and no prominent gun-control groups operate in the state.

Both major political parties oppose gun control. In the last two election cycles, the NRA gave more money to Democrats here (though not directly to Dean's campaigns) than to Republicans, bucking its national trend. Vermont politicians know well the story of Rep. Peter Smith (R), who was voted out of office in 1990 after the NRA turned against him over his support of a bill that would have regulated assault weapons.

"Even liberal Democrats get perfect ratings from the NRA, including myself," said Peter Shumlin, a former state senator. "Howard was the same."

While lieutenant governor, Dean -- whose national reputation as a liberal Democrat belies his centrist reputation here -- backed a 1988 law that barred municipal governments from imposing gun laws stricter than the state's. In 1992, shortly after being elected governor, he wrote on an NRA questionnaire that he opposed restrictions on assault weapons. A 1996 gun-control bill never made it past the Vermont legislature.

"I don't know what more people could want," said Evan Hughes of Barre, a hunter and member of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, the state's NRA affiliate. "You live in the most liberal state in the country, you have no gun laws, and you are unhappy?"

Dean's critics say his support for gun rights was never absolute and waned during his tenure. "There are factions in Vermont that didn't agree with his position on guns," said Jay Carson, a Dean campaign spokesman. "But it was a moderate position that made sense for the state."

In 1998 and 2000, Dean declined to attend or send a representative to candidate forums hosted by Gun Owners of Vermont and the Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, which together have several thousand members.

"Don't forget his presidential ambitions were in evidence by 1997," said Garrison Nelson, a political science professor at the University of Vermont, who said Dean probably knew his gun views could offend some Democratic primary voters. "To get the nomination, there had to be some repositioning on his part."

On a candidate questionnaire Gun Owners of Vermont sent out in July 1998, Dean left four of the five questions blank, scrawling at the bottom: "I support leaving the gun laws in Vermont alone as I have for the past 14 years. I, as always, reserve the right to change my position if compelling evidence warrants it. I have not seen such evidence in the past 14 years."

"We consider that a pretty soft position," Butterfield said.

As momentum grew for stricter gun laws nationwide after the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo., in 1999, Dean said, "The remedy is not simply in the law, it's mostly in the community and in the home."

But in 2000, he signed the only major gun bill of his tenure, which banned firearms on school grounds. Although the measure was tailored to make it more palatable to the NRA, some gun rights advocates said Dean's support for it contradicted his earlier statements.

"He speaks out of both sides of his mouth on this stuff," said Sam Frank, former sheriff of Orange County, Vt. He and several other police officers across the country sued to prevent the government from requiring them to perform background checks on gun purchasers, as mandated by the Brady federal gun law. One case succeeded in the Supreme Court in 1997.

"Even after we won, he was slow to stop the checks, and I had to write letters to the attorney general," Frank said. He and other gun rights activists say Dean avoided taking a public position on controversial gun issues. When the City Council in Montpelier, Vermont's capital, voted to ban the carrying of loaded weapons, gun rights advocates asked the governor to declare he would veto any bill that authorized the change.

In a March 2000 response, Dean wrote that he saw no need for new gun laws, saying, "I will keep your thoughts in mind if the legislation appears likely to make it to my desk." The proposal died in the legislature.

Dean later found himself at odds with some Vermont hunters when the state helped purchase a vast tract of land from Champion International Corp. Many sportsmen said they were infuriated when control over much of the land was turned over to the Nature Conservancy, an environmental group. New regulations were implemented on access roads used by hunters and on hunting camps. "He asked for our support and then broke his promises," said Steve McLeod, who heads the Vermont Traditions Coalition, a sportsmen's group.

Endorsing and Opposing

The NRA's continued backing of Dean's gubernatorial campaigns led his opponents to form a committee to advise the organization on endorsements. In August 2000, they wrote to Costa, the NRA representative, explaining that Vermont members were "indignant" over the group's support of Dean. But just days before the election, the NRA sent out a postcard asking Vermonters to vote for Dean, whose lead over Republican Ruth Dwyer had shrunk to single digits in some polls. He won reelection with just over half the votes cast.

"I am not saying I would have won without [the NRA] doing that," said Dwyer, whose campaign was fueled by the backlash against a 1999 law that legalized civil unions for gay couples. "But it was a factor."

"We do consider feedback, but when the day is done, the decision on endorsements is made by us alone," said Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA media liaison. The NRA has a "policy with some precedent" of backing the incumbent if that candidate did not support new gun laws, he added.

In recent months, Dean has said that although low-crime states such as Vermont require few gun laws, he favors renewal of the assault weapons ban, which expires in 2004, and background checks for those who shop at gun shows. He opposes granting legal immunity for gun manufacturers -- which a pending Senate bill would do -- and said he will not court the NRA in this election because the group is likely to back President Bush.

"We have seen some encouraging signs, but overall we're adopting a wait-and-see approach," said Blaine Rummel of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which favors an expansion of the assault weapons ban to include guns manufactured to fall just outside the bounds of the current law. Rummel said Dean has not made public his position on that policy.

Although some of Dean's primary opponents have steered clear of gun issues, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), who supported almost every gun-control measure during his legislative tenure, has called Dean's ties to gun groups and opposition to gun-control measures "indefensible."

In response, Dean said: "In a rural state, the NRA is not what it is in Washington. I think NRA members in rural states often do not engage in the kind of extreme rhetoric that sometimes the national NRA engages in."

But his critics in Vermont say his ambivalence on gun issues has long been evident.

"It is not that he is anti-gun," said Bill Leipold, former president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs. "It's just that he so clearly isn't a defender of the Second Amendment. For a lot of us that's not good enough."

Howard Dean says the states should largely be left to decide their own firearms policies.