DES MOINES, Iowa -- Under fire in a campaign debate, Howard Dean conceded grudgingly Sunday night that he never named a black or Latino to his cabinet during nearly 12 years as governor of Vermont.
"If you want to lecture people on race, you ought to have the background and track record to do that," Al Sharpton snapped at the Democratic presidential front-runner in an emotionally charged exchange in the final debate before next week's kick-off Iowa caucuses.
"I will take a backseat to no one in my commitment to civil rights in the United States of America," Dean said moments later, eager to have the last word.
Front-runner on defensive
Dean, leading in the polls in Iowa as well as nationwide, also drew criticism from Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio for saying he could balance the budget without cutting Pentagon spending. And Rep. Dick Gep-hardt of Missouri questioned him about whether he could cut payroll taxes without harming Social Security.
Dean said he could. "I think cutting the payroll tax is not a bad idea," he said. "We will not touch Social Security," he added, saying he had in mind an income tax credit that would help offset payroll taxes.
Dean also said he would defer any middle class tax cut until he had balanced the budget -- something he has previously pledged to do by midway through a second term in office.
The debate unfolded a little more than a week before Iowans begin the selection of national convention delegates who will pick an opponent for President Bush.
"We're past all this preliminary stuff. It's time to choose a president," said Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, reflecting the feeling of all the contenders who have spent more than a year traversing the state and visiting all 99 of its counties.
Recent polling shows Dean and Gephardt in a close race in the state, with Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Edwards trailing. The outcome will begin the winnowing process in the race for the nomination. Dean hopes for a victory to validate his claim as campaign front-runner. Gephardt's aides say he must win. Kerry and Edwards hope for strong finishes to sustain their campaigns in New Hampshire, whose primary follows Iowa by eight days.
The two-hour debate was billed as the Iowa Brown and Black Presidential Forum, designed to focus the contenders on issues of concern to minorities, and Sharpton's aggressive questioning of Dean accomplished that.
"You keep talking about race," the former street activist chided Dean when he had a turn to ask a question. He said that not one "black or brown held a senior policy position, not one...It seems as though you have discovered blacks and browns during this campaign," he said.
Bristling, Dean said it was untrue. He said he had "a senior member of my staff" who was a minority.
Sharpton said he was asking about the Cabinet, which has a small number of members.
"No, we did not," conceded Dean, whose state has a population that is nearly 98 percent white.
Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, who is African-American as it Sharpton, defended Dean. "Rev. Sharpton, the fact of the matter is we can always blow up a racial debate and make people mad at each other."
Moments later, Dean returned to the subject, noting that he has the endorsements of more members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus than any other presidential hopeful.
But Sharpton ridiculed that, saying, "I don't think that answers the questions ... I think you only need co-signers if your credit is bad."
For much of the evening, it seemed that a candidate's place in the polls dictated how often and sharply he or she was attacked.
"I was beginning to hope someone would attack me," said Sen. Joe Lieberman. No one did. The Connecticut senator is not competing in the caucuses, and lags in the New Hampshire polling.
Instead, they saved most of their ammunition for Dean, the surprise of the campaign so far, the former governor of a small state who moved from relative obscurity to front-runner during 2003.
Kucinich challenged him to say when he would cut middle class taxes, and said his statement not to cut the Pentagon budget "means you're going to cut ... funds for veterans, housing, health care, education."
Gephardt prodded him on Social Security, and Kerry even challenged him on his trademark issue -- opposition to the Iraq war.
"I think Gov. Dean has had it both ways," he said. Kerry said that in fall 2002, Dean spoke in support of congressional legislation that would have given Bush the authority to use force in Iraq, so long as he notified Congress in advance.
The event was broadcast by MSNBC and hosted by the network's Lester Holt and Maria Celeste Arraras of the Spanish-language network Telemundo.