A comment by Howard Dean about Confederate flags and pickup trucks has embroiled the leading Democrats in Iowa's presidential caucuses in a name-calling donnybrook.
"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 he was intending to encourage the return of Southern voters who have abandoned the Democrats for decades but are disaffected with the Republicans.
Two Democrat rivals competing against Dean in Iowa's leadoff Jan. 19 caucuses saw the comment differently.
Rep. Dick 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 Kerry of Massachusetts contended that Dean's "pandering" to the National Rifle Association gave him an inroad to "pander to lovers of the Confederate flag."
Dean's comment was reported in story about Kerry's criticism of Dean's record on guns. The senator claimed that Dean was an NRA favorite who opposed a 1994 law that banned assault weapons to civilians.
"I would rather be the candidate of the NAACP than the NRA," Kerry said in a statement.
Candidate and civil rights activist Al Sharpton -- who has accused Dean of having an "anti-black agenda" -- said he was "surprised and disturbed" by the Confederate 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.
"We have working white families in the south voting for tax cuts for the richest 1 percent while their children remain with no health care," Dean said. "The dividing of working people by race has been a cornerstone of Republican politics for the last three decades -- starting with Richard Nixon. ... The only way we're going to beat George Bush is if southern white working families and African-American working families come together under the Democratic tent, as they did under FDR."
The two southerners in the Democratic race, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and retired Army Gen. Wesley 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. "Governor Dean ought to be more careful about what he says," said 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 used the Confederate flag image in his campaign.
One instance came Feb. 22 at a meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Washington. Dean said the men with Confederate flag decals in their pickup trucks represented lucrative prospects for the party "because their kids don't have health insurance, either, and their kids need better schools, too."
The party elite stood and cheered.