WASHINGTON - Former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont is learning that being the front-runner for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination is often no day at the beach.
His rivals, fearful he will get so far ahead that he can't be caught, are going after him on matters large and small. Some accuse him of once wanting to cut Medicare; some say that he's in the National Rifle Association's pocket because he favors leaving most gun control to the states.
Up to now, Mr. Dean has sloughed off the criticisms with more than a touch of disdain or even arrogance. But the latest brouhaha, in which Mr. Dean said he wanted "to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks," brought a belated apology from him. "I regret the pain that I may have caused either to African-Americans or Southern white voters," he said, after first insisting no apology was in order.
Mr. Dean admitted he expressed himself "in a clumsy way." He can say that again. If he was merely trying to let every voter know the Democratic Party has an open door, it was a peculiarly artless way of putting it.
Mr. Dean had made basically the same comment months earlier in a speech to the Democratic National Committee when he was not quite such a hot ticket, to little protest from his opponents.
But this time, the other contenders jumped all over him. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, noting Mr. Dean's reference to "guys with Confederate flags" came in the context of his position on gun control, said: "It is simply unconscionable for Howard Dean to embrace the most racially divisive symbol in America. I would rather be the candidate of the NAACP than the NRA."
Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark of Arkansas, playing both his Southern and military cards, weighed in: "I've led Southerners and Northerners into battle under the Stars and Stripes of the American flag. As a native of the South, I understand that this is the only flag that unites us all, regardless of race or color. Every Democratic candidate for president needs to condemn the divisiveness that the Confederate flag represents."
Still another Southerner, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, expressed regional resentment at Mr. Dean's remark, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, in his understated way, called the Confederate banner "America's swastika."
Mr. Dean's penchant for speaking first and reflecting on what he's said only when challenged remains a peril for him. As he put it himself the other day, "I tend to be reflective later rather than sooner. ... So the things that make me a strong candidate are also my Achilles' heel."
His Confederate flag remark might be politically inconsequential except that after the kickoff presidential caucuses in Iowa and the New Hampshire primary, the candidates will move on the next week to South Carolina, where the Confederate flag issue remains a subject of controversy.
In 2000, the state legislature moved the flag from the State House in Columbia to a Confederate memorial on the Capitol grounds, but the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP continues an economy boycott of the state.
Joe Erwin, the South Carolina state Democratic chairman, told The State newspaper: "I don't know if it was a campaign issue, but Howard Dean might have just made it one." And the Rev. Joseph Darby, first vice chairman of the South Carolina NAACP, told the paper: "If it wasn't Dean's comment, it would have popped up sooner or later."
In 2000, Republican candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona ran afoul of the flag issue when he first said during the primary there, in a tight race against George W. Bush, that the flag should be removed from the Capitol. Then he switched, calling it a symbol of Southern heritage. He lost anyway.
Mr. Dean's apology may quell the Confederate flag issue for now, but with leading newspapers in South Carolina picking up on his first comment, he can expect to face it again in the state's Feb. 3 presidential primary. Meanwhile, his opponents can be counted on to focus on that "Achilles' heel" to fan voters' doubts about his credibility.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau and appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.