Democratic hopefuls assail Dean, deride Bush’s Iraq policy at forum

Racial politics took center stage at a forum for Democratic presidential candidates Tuesday as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean came under attack for suggesting that the party should reach out to Southern whites who display the Confederate flag.

“You can’t bring a Confederate flag to the table of brotherhood. … That is insensitive, and I think you ought to apologize to people for that,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told Dean. “You are not a bigot, but you appear to be too arrogant to say, ‘I’m wrong.'”

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina accused Dean of stereotyping Southern whites.

“The last thing we need in the South is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need to do,” he said. “The people that I grew up with, the vast majority of them, don’t drive around with Confederate flags on their pickup truck.”

He called Dean’s remarks “condescending” and “wrong.”

Dean, who also faced criticism from former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, called the Confederate flag “a loathsome symbol,” but stood by his earlier comments.

“We have to reach out to every single American,” he said. “We don’t have to embrace the Confederate flag, and I never suggested that we did. But we have to reach out to all disenfranchised people.”

When Dean noted that he had been endorsed by Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., the son and namesake of the civil rights leader, Sharpton shot back, “That sounds more like Stonewall Jackson than Jesse Jackson.”

Appearing at a 90-minute forum for young voters hosted by CNN, the Democrats heaped scorn on President Bush’s handling of the Iraq war, but differed over how they would deal with it.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Sharpton advocated a quick withdrawal. Most of the others said they would seek more international involvement before removing U.S. troops.

“We can’t cut and run,” said Dean, who has emerged as the Democratic front-runner largely because of his antiwar stance.

Sharing the stage in Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall, the candidates took questions from an audience of about 200 self-proclaimed undecided voters, all under age 30. Many of the inquiries covered familiar ground – the war, the economy, gun control and gay rights – but some touched on issues rarely mentioned at traditional candidate debates.

One young voter asked the candidates if they had ever smoked marijuana. “Yes,” answers came from Dean, Edwards and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Sharpton, Kucinich, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark and Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut answered, “No,” but in a sign of how far public opinion has shifted on the issue, Lieberman apologized for his failure to try it.

Moseley Braun refused to answer. The other Democratic hopeful, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, skipped the forum to campaign in Iowa.

The candidates tried various ways to appeal to their youthful audience. Clark and Kucinich wore collar-less shirts. When the candidates were given a chance to air 30-second videos, Lieberman touted his candidacy with an MTV-style collection of photos with fast edits, odd camera angles and a throbbing beat.

Clark, a decorated military veteran, used a question about gay rights to criticize the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Clark said gays should be allowed to remain in the military even when they publicly acknowledge their homosexuality.

“I think everybody deserves the right to serve,” he said. “The policy needs to be reviewed, because there are so many indications that it is not working.”

Most of the other candidates joined Clark in declaring their support for gay rights. Kucinich endorsed gay marriages, and Dean noted that he signed legislation in Vermont to permit civil unions for gays, the legal equivalent of marriage.

In response to a question on Cuba, Clark said he would lift the trade embargo that was imposed against Fidel Castro’s regime.

“When you isolate a country, you strengthen the dictator in it,” Clark said.

In one of the forum’s lighter moments, a young woman asked the candidates which of their opponents they would most like to party with.

“You know, who do you think can shake their groove thing,” she said. “If you get sick, who’s going to hold your hair back? … If you see a cutie across the room, who’s going to be your wing man?”

Sharpton mulled over the question for a while.

“Probably the best person I’ve met on the campaign to party with – Mrs. Kerry,” he said, referring to the candidate’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry.

“I was going to choose Carol Moseley Braun,” a grinning Kerry told Sharpton, “but now I’m going to have to choose you so I can keep an eye on my wife!”