Democratic presidential front-runner Howard Dean came under a blistering attack at a candidates' debate in Boston last night for a statement he made last week in which he pledged to "be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks."
Calling Dean's remarks offensive and insensitive, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina and the Rev. Al Sharpton demanded he apologize. Dean refused to do so in one of the sharpest and most personal exchanges in a debate season that has been more often marked by disputes over Medicare policy and which portions of the Bush tax cut to repeal. When asked by the moderator whether Dean held racist views, Sharpton, a longtime civil rights leader from Harlem, said that "some of his positions would have hurt us," but that he did not believe Dean was a bigot. Yet he took sharp exception when Dean defended himself by invoking Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of uniting white and black Americans.
"Martin Luther King said, `Come to the table of brotherhood.' You can't bring a Confederate flag to the table of brotherhood," Sharpton said. "And you can't misquote Martin Luther King like that. . . . I don't think you're a bigot, but I think that is insensitive, and I think you ought to apologize to people for that."
Sharpton also compared the Confederate flag to the Nazi swastika and called Dean "too arrogant to say `I'm wrong.' "
The 15-minute exchange on the Confederate flag was the edgiest by far in a debate that was notable for its loose, casual feel as the candidates tried to reflect the mood of the Faneuil Hall audience of college students and other young adults. Unlike previous debates, this one featured more repartee and arguments on a range of atypical issues. The 90-minute discussion dwelled at some length on gay rights, but also touched on the military draft, the candidates' computer use, and their memories of themselves as 20-year-olds. And, in shades of the 1992 race, candidates were asked directly whether they had smoked marijuana. Edwards, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, and Dean said they had, to hearty applause. Retired Army General Wesley K. Clark, Sharpton, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, and Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio said they had not. Former senator Carol Moseley Braun refused to answer.
The eight candidates -- absent Representative Richard A. Gephardt, who skipped the debate to campaign in Iowa -- came in casual dress, with only a couple wearing jackets. Dean rolled up his shirt-sleeves, Clark and Kucinich wore black mock turtlenecks, and several others wore open-necked collars. Only Lieberman wore a tie and jacket, and he quickly removed his sport coat.
The attacks on Dean were notably fierce, and the former Vermont governor struggled at first to defend himself for having told the Des Moines Register: "I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks. We can't beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross section of Democrats."
Dean did not address the symbolism of the Confederate flag initially last night, instead he tried to explain that for Democrats to win the White House next year, they needed a "big tent" party that appealed to poor Southern whites who have voted Republican in recent years. He also suggested that he was a friend to black Americans, noting that he was recently endorsed by Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., a Chicago Democrat.
But Edwards pounced next, pressing Dean to say he was wrong. "Let me tell you, the last thing we need in the South is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need to do," Edwards said. "I grew up with the very people that you're talking about. And what Al Sharpton just said is exactly right. The people that I grew up with, the vast majority of them, they don't drive around with Confederate flags on pickup trucks."
But Dean refused to apologize. Instead, he made clear that he did not support the flag of the Civil War-era Confederacy itself. "I think the Confederate flag is a racist symbol," Dean said, "but I think there are lot of poor people who fly that flag because the Republicans have been dividing us by race since 1968 with their Southern-race strategy."
Moseley Braun, one of two African-Americans, with Sharpton, in the race, called on Democrats to win Southern voters and "get past that racist strategy that the Republicans have foisted upon this country."
Kerry, who is running behind Dean in New Hampshire polls and has attacked him recently on gun control, did so again last night.
A few audience members said after the debate that they were surprised at the ferocity of the attacks on Dean and disappointed with his performance.
"I kind of wish that he had said, `If I had offended you, I'm sorry, but . . .' " said Althea Pieters, 22, a fiscal policy analyst for the Massachusetts Senate.
Pieters had sparked one of the debate's lighter moments when she asked the candidate which of their rivals they'd most like to party with. ("If you see a cutie across the room, who's going to be your wingman?")
The candidates were less rancorous when they championed the cause of gay rights and partner benefits, with Dean noting that he had signed landmark legislation permitting civil unions in Vermont. Dean said he supported "equal rights," but preferred that the social acceptance of homosexuality come by "people who are gay and lesbian standing up and being proud of who they are and saying so."
Kucinich said he would legalize gay marriage, while most of the other Democrats would not go that far. Kerry endorsed civil unions and partnership rights, as well as hate crimes legislation.
Clark, a retired four-star general and former Supreme Allied commander of NATO, also replied to a questioner that he supported gays serving in the US military and that he himself had gay friends. When asked whether he ever disclosed a soldier's sexuality under the Pentagon's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, Clark said: "Never turned anybody in, but I had people who came to me after they had turned themselves in. And it's a very sad thing because a lot of these people wanted to serve, but they just had a conflict between what they felt on the inside" and official policy. Kerry stated his opposition to the policy more directly, saying he was one of only four people to testify before the Senator Armed Services Committee "for the right and abililty of anybody to serve in the armed forces." Of the nine Democrats running for president, only Gephardt skipped last night's forum, as he returned to Iowa and his must-win race for the Jan. 19 caucuses. Some debate organizers were angered by his absence -- especially since he spoke across the river at Harvard on Monday night -- yet it was not unexpected. Gephardt has devoted the majority of his time and advertising dollars to Iowa. Privately, a senior adviser to another Democratic contender was grumpy about being pulled to Boston yesterday instead of campaigning in battleground states or with candidates in local elections.
"We're one year from the Election Day that counts," the adviser said. "Why do we have to be here?"
Laying claim to the home field advantage, members of the Kerry camp had fanned out along the police barricades at Faneuil Hall by 4 p.m. yesterday, hoping to keep the Dean camp far from the news cameras. Aides to the Kerry campaign brought out coffee to their cold, rain-soaked supporters while they and the Dean crowd traded cat-calls as darkness fell. "Beantown is Deantown," the "Howard-powered" chanted. For his part, Clark emerged from his room at the Park Plaza and boarded a Duck boat to take him to Faneuil Hall.
The theme of last night's debate -- the sixth in eight weeks -- was summed up in a news release of one of the organizers: "Tough questions asked by the nation's youth -- unscripted, uncensored, and unpredictable!" Some of the debates this fall have featured an overarching theme like this, such as the economy and jobs; others have had sponsors that highlighted the concerns of local audiences, such as the Congressional Black Caucus debate last month in Detroit and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus forum in New Mexico in early September.
Boston was chosen for the debate because of its youthful population and its history of grass-roots activism, according to Greene of Rock the Vote. "It's the college town of America," she said.
Organizers of the 2004 Democratic National Convention, which will take place in Boston in July, have wasted few opportunities to advertise the main event. Terry McAuliffe, Democratic National Committee chairman, issued an "Open Letter to Young Americans" yesterday, chastising them for their low voter participation and urging them to vote against Bush. A recent Harvard poll indicated that 80 percent of the 1,200 students surveyed nationwide would "definitely" or "probably" vote in the 2004 elections -- and two-thirds were already registered -- the low turnout of young adults has been a persistent frustration for some politicians.
"It's worth remembering this one historical fact," McAuliffe's letter read. "Revolutions start in Boston."