Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean is under fire because of a comment he made that some of his rivals contend was racially insensitive. The battle for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, while still in the early stages, appears to be intensifying.
At a candidates forum in Boston, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean was put on the defensive over a recent comment he made about appealing to conservative white voters in the south.
Mr. Dean said that he wanted to be the candidate for, in his words, "guys with Confederate flags in their pick-up trucks." The Confederate flag remains a divisive symbol in the south, especially for African-Americans who see it as representative of a time when they were held as slaves.
The Dean comment drew strong rebukes from two rivals during the Boston debate. New York civil rights activist Al Sharpton described the Confederate flag as "America's swastika" and said Mr. Dean should apologize for mentioning it.
Another rival, North Carolina Senator John Edwards, said he found the Dean comment "condescending" to southern whites.
The former Vermont governor refused to apologize for the remark and said it was important that Democratic presidential candidates reach out to southern white voters.
"I think we need to talk to white southern workers about how they vote, because when white people and black people, and brown people vote together in this country, that is the only time that we make social progress and they need to come back to the Democratic Party," he said.
The south was once a stronghold for the Democratic Party. But during the past three decades there has been a steady shift in allegiance among southerners to Republican presidential candidates.
It remains to be seen how significant, if at all, the controversy over the Dean comment will become. But some political analysts say one of Mr. Dean's strengths, a tendency to say what he thinks and defend it no matter what, could hurt him down the road.
Newsweek magazine political reporter Howard Fineman spoke about the issue on NBC's Today program.
"Well, he [Dean] probably should have apologized, up front, for using a term and for bringing up a symbol that most people find outrageous," he said. "But it is not in Howard Dean's nature to apologize, at least up front."
Mr. Dean is either leading or near the top of public opinion polls in the crucial early contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Iowa opens the presidential selection process in mid-January.
Mr. Dean is one of nine Democrats vying for the right to challenge President Bush in next year's election.