A comment by Howard Dean about Confederate flags and pickup trucks has drawn critical reaction from other candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination.
"I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks," the former Vermont governor was quoted as saying in Saturday's Des Moines Register. "We can't beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross-section of Democrats."
Dean said Saturday that in his remarks to the Register -- made in a Friday telephone interview from New Hampshire -- he was intending to encourage the return of Southern voters who have abandoned the Democrats for decades but are disaffected with the Republicans.
Two Democrats competing against Dean in Iowa's leadoff Jan. 19 caucuses saw the comment differently.
Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who shares the lead in Iowa with Dean, accused Dean of making a blatant move to win the votes of people "who disagree with us on bedrock Democratic values like civil rights."
"I don't want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks," Gephardt said in a statement. "I will win the Democratic nomination because I will be the candidate for guys with American flags in their pickup trucks."
Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts contended that Dean's "pandering" to the National Rifle Assn. gave him an inroad to "pander to lovers of the Confederate flag."
Dean's flag comment was reported in a story about Kerry's criticism of Dean's record on gun control issues.
"I would rather be the candidate of the NAACP than the NRA," Kerry said in a statement.
Candidate and civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton -- who has accused Dean of having an "anti-black agenda" -- said he was "surprised and disturbed" by the flag remark. "If I said I wanted to be the candidate for people that ride around with helmets and swastikas, I would be asked to leave," Sharpton said.
In response to the criticism, Dean released a statement saying: "I want people with Confederate flags on their trucks to put down those flags and vote Democratic -- because the need for quality health care, jobs and a good education knows no racial boundaries."
The two Southerners in the Democratic race, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark of Arkansas, also protested.
"Some of the greatest civil rights leaders, white and black, have come from the South," said Edwards. "To assume that Southerners who drive trucks would embrace this symbol is offensive."
Clark said, "Every Democratic candidate for president needs to condemn the divisiveness the Confederate flag represents."
Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman's campaign weighed in as well. "Gov. Dean ought to be more careful about what he says," said Lieberman campaign director Craig Smith. "It is irresponsible and reckless to loosely talk about one of the most divisive, hurtful symbols in American history."
Dean spokeswoman Tricia Enright told the Associated Press that Dean had previously made Confederate flag references in his campaign.
One instance came Feb. 22, at a meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Washington, when Dean said the men with Confederate flag decals in their pickup trucks represented prospects for the party "because their kids don't have health insurance, either, and their kids need better schools too."
Enright said Dean's remarks at that time were received with "resounding applause and a standing ovation."