Washington — A comment by Howard Dean about Confederate flags and pickup trucks has embroiled the leading Democrats in Iowa's 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 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 will win the Democratic nomination," Gephardt said, "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 Assn. gave him an inroad to "pander to lovers of the Confederate flag."
Dean's comment was reported in a 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.
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".
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," Edwards said. "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. "It is irresponsible and reckless to loosely talk about one of the most divisive, hurtful symbols in American history," said campaign director Craig Smith.