Gov. Richard Snelling of Vermont, a Republican who prided himself on his businessman's approach to government, died in his sleep yesterday, a spokesman said. He was 64.

Lieut. Gov. Howard Dean, a Democrat, will assume the state's highest office.

First elected in 1976, Gov. Snelling held office until 1984 when he left state politics for an unsuccessful bid for the Senate against the incumbent Democrat, Patrick Leahy.

He was re-elected last fall, defeating Peter Welch, a former president of Vermont's Senate, in the race to succeed Democrat Madeleine Kunin.

During his earlier stint in office, Gov. Snelling handed Vermonters what was then the state's biggest tax cut ever and presided over repeated revenue surpluses.

The governor, who had built a multimillion-dollar manufacturing business, believed strongly in public service.

He was once asked what he would like to be remembered for when he left office. "I hope to have demonstrated that government can be effective," he said. "And by 'effective,' I don't mean cheap and I don't mean efficient in a narrow sense.

"I would like to demonstrate that it's possible to have a state government about which people can say, 'They do good work; they give me value; they care about my interests; they are thoughtful.'"

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