Presidential candidate Howard Dean came under a new slew of criticism from his Democratic opponents during a televised debate Tuesday as they demanded that he apologize for saying recently that he wanted to appeal to "guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks."
Dean, considered the front-runner among the Democrats seeking to face President Bush in next year's election, was put on the defensive in the first few minutes of what was the most spirited encounter yet among the presidential candidates.
The former Vermont governor said he did not embrace the Confederate flag, which he called a racist symbol, but said he was simply expressing his belief that the Democratic Party must reach out to poor, white Southerners who have been voting for Republicans in national elections for years.
"I am not a bigot," Dean said, refusing to express remorse for his comment.
The Rev. Al Sharpton of New York, who is African American, accused Dean of dodging the question of what he meant by his reference to the Confederate flag -- which Sharpton referred to as "America's swastika." Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina then accused Dean of being condescending by painting a caricature of Southerners.
But Dean, his body stiffening in response to the criticism, stood his ground.
"I make no apologies for reaching out to poor white people.... " he said. "I understand the Confederate flag is a loathsome symbol ... [but] if we don't reach out to every American, we can't win."
The exchange over Dean's comment on Southern voters and the Confederate flag made up the most heated back-and-forth of a lively, often-humorous 90-minute candidate forum Tuesday night sponsored by CNN and Rock the Vote.
Touted as an opportunity for the candidates to reach out to young people who traditionally do not vote in high numbers, the debate had a decidedly more casual, free-flowing flavor than the five forums held earlier this year.
Retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio donned black turtlenecks and jackets for the occasion. All the candidates brought flashy 30-second campaign videos, many featuring quick camera cuts and hip-hop music aimed toward young voters.
About a dozen of several hundred young people who filled Boston's Colonial-era Faneuil Hall, a forum for public speeches since the days of Samuel Adams, pressed the candidates on matters such as gay rights, sex education and marijuana use. (Dean, Edwards and Sen. John F. Kerry said they had used it; Kucinich, Clark, Sharpton and Sen. Joe Lieberman said they had not. Former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun declined to answer.)
One candidate was conspicuously absent from the mix: Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri skipped the event to campaign in Iowa, making him the first presidential hopeful to pass on a debate since they began campaigning in earnest this fall.
With yet another forum scheduled to be held tonight in Manchester, N.H., some political analysts said the debates had diminishing value for candidates trying to shore up their support. For Gephardt, who has pinned his strategy on a strong showing in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses, time is especially precious.
The most dramatic moment Tuesday came early in the debate, when Sekou Diyday, who is 25 and black, told Dean he was offended by his remark about the Confederate flag and asked how he planned to be sensitive to African Americans.
In his answer, the Vermont governor did not explain his reference to the flag, but said he believed the Democratic Party needed to do more to appeal to poor whites who are not being served by the current administration. He quoted civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.'s desire for whites and blacks to work together.
"When white people and black people and brown people vote together in this country, that's the only time that we make social progress, and they need to come back to the Democratic Party," he said.
That prompted a rebuke from Sharpton, who said that Dean had not answered the question and accused him of misquoting King.
"First of all, Martin Luther King said, 'Come to the table of brotherhood,' " Sharpton said. "You can't bring a Confederate flag to the table of brotherhood."
"You are not a bigot, but you appear to be too arrogant to say, 'I'm wrong,' " he added.
Dean refused to apologize. Edwards jumped into the fray, accusing Dean of stereotyping Southerners.
"The people I grew up with, the vast majority of them, they don't drive around with Confederate flags on pickup trucks," the senator from North Carolina said.
The debate over Dean's remark points to a larger split within the Democratic Party, which all but lost the hold it had on the South four decades ago as Democrats have courted African Americans, advocated gun control and increasingly identified with liberal social positions that offend many Southerners. In 2000, then-Vice President Al Gore, a former senator from Tennessee, lost every state that had made up the Confederacy.
Throughout his campaign, Dean has argued that Democrats have to broaden their focus and attempt to regain those voters.
The pounding he took by his opponents underscores both the internal debate within the Democratic Party about its direction and the current dynamics of the presidential primary, in which the virtually unknown former Vermont governor has vaulted to the top of the Democratic pack.
Dean made light of his front-runner role, saying, "The reason I knew I was the front-runner is because I keep picking buckshot out of my rear end all the time."
The other candidates sought to shore up their progressive credentials for the young audience. Clark, former NATO supreme commander, said he believed the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gays and lesbians should be reviewed, and Kucinich promised he would support gay marriage.
The candidates also addressed the war in Iraq, but at much shorter length than in previous forums. Kerry voted to give Bush authorization to go to war but has criticized the administration's handling of Iraq since then.
"This president has made our military weaker by overextending them, and he has in fact made America less secure by conducting this arrogant, blustering, unilateral foreign policy that has put America in greater danger, not less," Kerry said.
Lieberman, who also supported going to war, said Bush was failing to bring in the world community to stabilize Iraq. Still, he reiterated his support for the $87.5 billion Congress approved Tuesday for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I'm going to be a leader who will do what's right for America, whether it's politically popular or not," he said. "That's what a commander in chief should do."
But the controversy over Dean's Confederate flag reference dominated the evening, spilling over into the candidates' post-debate interviews.
Edwards characterized the comment as "enormously dangerous for the Democrats."
"If he believes that what he said is OK, he's completely wrong about that," he said.
Lieberman said he understood the point Dean was trying to make, but added that he made an error in evoking the Confederate flag.
The comment was "an insult to African Americans, an insult to a lot of white Southerners who are trying to look forward instead of backward," Lieberman said.
For his part, Dean reiterated his argument that he believes the party must expand its base to include poor white voters, even if it means appealing to people who fly a racist symbol.
After the debate, Dean complained that he felt personally offended by some of the criticism. He said Edwards had "strayed over the line of personal attacks and what was necessary."
Times researcher Susannah Rosenblatt contributed to this report.