BOSTON – Howard Dean (search), under fire from his Democratic rivals, stubbornly refused to apologize Tuesday night for saying the party must court Southerners with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.
"Were you wrong, Howard? Were you wrong to say that?" Sen. John Edwards (search) challenged the former Vermont governor in a hot, hip campaign debate.
"No, I wasn't, John Edwards," Dean shot back, adding that to win, Democrats must appeal to working-class white voters in the South who consistently support Republicans "against their own economic interests."
The exchange was the sharpest of the night in a debate that generally veered away from campaign issues such as Iraq and the economy, and into areas of interest to younger voters.
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark (search), asked about gay and lesbian rights, said he would give homosexuals "the opportunity to serve in the U.S. armed forces." Under a policy in effect since the Clinton administration, gays are permitted to serve in the military if they do not disclose their sexual orientation.
Asked whether they had ever used marijuana, Edwards, Dean and Sen. John Kerry (search) said they have. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Clark and Al Sharpton (search) said they had not. Sen. Joe Lieberman answered the same, although he apologized as he did so. Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun declined to answer.
Rep. Dick Gephardt was the only absentee as the Democrats vying to challenge President Bush gathered for their sixth debate in two months. The Missouri lawmaker chose to campaign in Iowa, site of the leadoff caucuses on Jan. 19.
The eight other Democrats met in Faneuil Hall, a building steeped in history -- and an unlikely venue for a debate unlike any other.
That was clear from the outset, when the moderator appeared on stage wearing an open-necked dress shirt -- and invited the nationwide television audience to submit questions by text message. In addition to a cable news network, Rock the Vote sponsored the debate.
The candidates, too, dressed down for the event. Lieberman wore a shirt and tie but no jacket; Edwards favored an open-necked, blue-and-white checked shirt, and Clark and Kucinich opted for turtlenecks.
Sekou Diyday, 25, a supermarket buyer, confronted Dean with the question about the Confederate flag and comments the former governor had made over the weekend in an interview with the Des Moines Register.
"I was extremely offended," Diyday said. "Could you please explain to me how you plan on being sensitive to needs and issues regarding slavery and African-Americans after making a comment of that nature," he said to applause from the audience.
Dean responded by quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as saying it was his dream that "the sons of slaveholders and the sons of slaves" could some day sit down together.
Sharpton interjected that Dean had failed to answer the question, then said the former governor had misquoted King. "You can't bring a Confederate flag to the table of brotherhood," he said.
He added, "You are not a bigot, but you appear to be too arrogant to say 'I'm wrong' and go on."
Dean defended himself and his remarks, telling Sharpton, "We're not going to win this country ... if we don't have a big tent. And I'm going to tell you reverend, you're right. I'm not a bigot."
"We need to bring folks together in this race, just like Martin Luther King tried to do ... And I make no apologies for reaching out to poor white people," Dean said.
Edwards jumped in moments later, challenging Dean to say whether he was wrong to have made his comments about the flag.
Again, Dean said he was not. He added that people were wrong to fly the flag, which he called a racist symbol. But he added, "I think there are a lot of poor people who fly that flag because the Republicans have been dividing us by race since 1968 with their Southern race strategy."
But Edwards, who represents North Carolina, was unwilling to let the subject go.
"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," he said.
Diyday, the 25-year-old Bostonian who asked the question, said later he was unimpressed with Dean's response. "He took a lot of steps back by completely ignoring the question," he said.
Kerry, who did not join in the clash over the flag, assailed Dean over gun control, saying that the former governor has been "endorsed more times by the NRA [National Rifle Association] than the NEA [National Education Association]."
Dean, who served as governor of a rural state with a low homicide rate, retorted that he supports the existing assault weapons ban as well as the other federal gun control laws. In addition, he said each state should decide what additional restrictions it favors.
Despite the clashes, the debate provoked moments of levity, including when one questioner asked the eight contenders to say which one of their rivals they would like to party with.
Kucinich said Sharpton. Lieberman, with apologies to his wife, said his choice was the young woman who asked the question. Sharpton said his choice was Kerry's wife. That prompted Kerry to select Sharpton, a choice, he said, that would allow the Massachusetts senator to keep an eye on Teresa Heinz Kerry and the New Yorker.