Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean is seeking to put a political controversy behind him, after making a comment that some of his rivals found racially insensitive. The battle for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, while still in the early stages, appears to be intensifying.
The former Vermont governor says he regrets causing any pain with a recent comment about trying to win the support of southern whites who display the Confederate flag, a symbol of hate for many African-Americans.
Mr. Dean recently said that he wanted to be the candidate for, in his words, "guys with Confederate flags in their pick-up trucks."
That comment drew a sharp response from two rivals during a candidate's debate in Boston late Tuesday.
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 during the Boston debate, but apparently had a change of heart Wednesday while campaigning in New York.
"I deeply regret the pain I may have caused. Many of our white supporters have understood," he said. "But to those who do not, I regret the pain I have caused. But I will tell you, there is no easy way to do this and that there will be pain as we discuss it and we must face it together, hand in hand."
When pressed during the Boston debate, Mr. Dean said it was important for Democratic presidential candidates to reach out for the support of more conservative 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.
In state elections Tuesday, Democrats suffered further setbacks in the south, as Republicans won governor's races in Kentucky and Mississippi.
Mr. Dean is either leading or near the top of public opinion polls in the crucial early contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire. He is one of nine Democrats vying for the right to challenge President Bush in next year's election.