Howard Dean sent a handwritten letter to Democratic presidential primary rival John Edwards, apologizing for saying that Edwards avoided talking about his support of the Iraqi conflict before a largely anti-war audience.

During a speech to California Democrats earlier this month, Dean criticized Edwards and Sen. John Kerry for backing the war. He said the two senators, who voted last fall for a congressional resolution authorizing force, did not stand by their positions when they addressed the same group.

But Edwards, who spoke before Dean addressed the California audience, had pledged support for disarming Iraq by force and was booed and jeered by many in the crowd. Dean said he had not heard Edwards' speech and was unaware of what the North Carolina senator had said when he criticized him.

"I thought it did take a lot of guts for him to get up in front of the convention and say what he said, and I commend him for that," the former Vermont governor said Wednesday. He said he mailed a personal letter of apology to Edwards Sunday during a campaign stop in Iowa.

But Dean continued his criticism on Edwards on Monday. "It seems to me he has changed his position," he said, according to a report in the Des Moines Register.

Then in an interview Tuesday with The Arlene Violet Show on WHJJ radio in Providence, R.I., Dean said all the candidates except Kerry have made their position clear on Iraq, including Edwards.

Dean spokeswoman Sue Allen said Dean misrepresented Edwards' stance before the California Democrats, but he thought Edwards was inconsistent in other appearances. She added that Edwards appears to have smoothed out his message and is consistently pro-war.

Allen said Dean personally mailed the letter to Edwards and no copy was made. She said the letter commended Edwards for his courage in supporting the war but reinforced that Dean disagreed with his position.

Edwards spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said the senator has not received the letter yet, but he appreciates the apology.

"He believes that it's a test of presidential leadership to defend what you believe in even when people disagree with you," she said. "He has been clear and consistent on the issue of Iraq. He does not say different things in front of different audiences."

During an interview Wednesday, Dean, who opposes the war, said he still doesn't understand Kerry's position on Iraq. The Massachusetts senator voted for the resolution giving President Bush the authority to use military force to oust Saddam Hussein, but he has criticized the president for failing to assemble more international support.

Kerry said Wednesday that he has been "100 percent consistent" in his stand that Saddam is a brutal dictator who must be disarmed. "I have no response to Howard Dean," he said.

Dean and Kerry are developing a strong rivalry in the Democratic race that has already attracted nine candidates. A poll released last week showed them in a virtual tie in New Hampshire, site of the first primary next year.