Dean stands by Confederate flag comment

In debate, Democrats attack rival over remark

November 05, 2003|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean refused to apologize in a nationally televised debate last night for saying he wanted to be the candidate of white Southerners with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks.

The former Vermont governor has come under intense criticism from several of his Democratic rivals since making the remark. The flap is threatening to become the first serious problem to face his front-running candidacy.

Last night in Boston, during a town hall-style "Rock the Vote" forum aimed primarily at younger voters, Dean again found himself on the defensive but refused to back down.

He was asked by a black audience member whether he could be sensitive to the needs of African-Americans after having said last week in Iowa that he wanted the support of Southern whites who display the Confederate battle flag.

"Sure," Dean said, repeating his contention that "Southern white working people" have "nothing to show" for three decades of voting Republican in presidential elections and need to be brought back into the Democratic Party.

Two trailing candidates in the presidential contest were quick to pounce on Dean. While stopping short of labeling him a racist, Sen. John Edwards and the Rev. Al Sharpton were caustic in their criticism.

Sharpton, a civil rights activist, called the Confederate flag "America's swastika." He demanded that Dean apologize for his "insensitive" remark.

"You are not a bigot, but you appear to be too arrogant to say `I'm wrong,'" said Sharpton.

Edwards, from North Carolina, accused Dean of being "condescending" to Southerners. He said that the New Englander had stereotyped Southern whites in the same way that older people often patronize younger ones.

"Somebody like you coming down telling us what to do - that's the last thing in the world we need in the South," said Edwards.

Dean said he considered the Confederate flag a "loathsome" and "racist" symbol but said he had "no apologies" for reaching out to poor whites.

He added, "If we don't reach out to every American, we can't win. I've had enough of campaigns based on fear. I want a campaign based on hope."

The 90-minute forum at historic Faneuil Hall, moderated by CNN's Anderson Cooper, was livelier than most of this fall's other debates. The candidates, most of whom are in their 50s and 60s, produced 30-second videos designed to appeal to under-30 voters.

Economic issues and the war in Iraq, which have dominated the debates, got relatively short shrift, in spite of the deadly downing over the weekend of a Chinook helicopter, which killed 16 U.S. servicemen.

Sex, drugs, gun control

Instead, the candidates were asked about social issues, including gay rights, sex education, gun control and their own drug use.

Dean, Edwards and Sen. John Kerry said they had smoked marijuana. Sharpton, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman and Rep. Dennis Kucinich said they had not, though Kucinich said it should be decriminalized. Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun laughingly declined to answer.

Kucinich, the most liberal candidate in the field, was the only Democrat to speak up last night in favor of gay marriage. Clark, who, like Kucinich, wore a turtleneck shirt instead of a tie, said the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays and lesbians should be reviewed because it forces those who admit their homosexuality to leave the armed services.

"It's a very sad thing," he said, "because a lot of these people wanted to serve."

Clark also said that he would end the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba.

Kerry was asked why he had to kill two pheasants during an Iowa hunting trip last week. The millionaire senator joked that, because of the tough economy, "it's amazing what you have to go through to put food on the table." He said he considered hunting a legitimate pursuit, then leveled an attack on Dean, whose pro-gun policies in Vermont won him the endorsement of the National Rife Association.

Dean, who would leave many gun-control decisions up to the states, responded that he knew he must be the front-runner in the Democratic race because he kept picking buckshot "out of my rear end all the time."

Gephardt a no-show

For the first time, one of the major candidates, Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, skipped a televised debate, to campaign in tiny Jefferson, Iowa (pop. 4,626), instead. A spokeswoman said that while the debates mattered, Iowa was crucial to Gephardt, who has called it a must-win state for him.

Gephardt's campaign is among those that have criticized as excessive the almost weekly series of TV debates and candidate forums.

Kerry recently derided the multicandidate debates as "superficial," and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, told the Boston Herald recently that forums featuring all nine candidates are "silly," "unproductive" and a waste of time for the voters and the candidates.

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