BY CLINTON DICK
Former Vermont governor Howard Dean came under attack during Tuesday’s debate for recent remarks that he wanted “to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.” Rev. Al Sharpton, who said he was deeply offended by Dean’s remarks, and Sen. John Edwards demanded that the governor apologize.
Dean responded, “I make no apology.” “Jesse Jackson Jr. endorsed me and backed up my statement. I make no apologies for reaching out to poor people,” he continued. The governor defended himself again later, saying he was “not going to take a back seat to fighting bigotry” and that he was the only candidate to have signed a bill banning discrimination against gays and lesbians.
At one point Edwards, a Southerner, pointed his finger at Dean and said, “The last thing we need in the South is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need to do.”
Amb. Carol Mosley Braun said Democrats need to “engage in a conversation” as to how southern whites and southern blacks can come together.
The heated exchange came with the first presidential primary less than three months away. The seven candidates (Gephardt chose instead to hang out in an Iowa diner) gathered in Faneuil Hall in Boston for a question-and-answer style debate, with students from the surrounding universities as the questioners. The event was sponsored by CNN and Rock the Vote.
Edwards’ and Sharpton’s confrontations with Dean do not come as a surprise since conventional political wisdom says front-runners should be attacked. Thus it was surprising that Gen. Wesley Clark left the debate relatively unharmed by the other candidates, as he is statistically in a tie with Dean as the Democratic nominee.
But with the rise of Solomon lawsuits and the issue of gays in the military again surfacing, Clark’s military career made him the target for some rather direct questions. At one point a student asked Clark, “What is your personal comfort level with homosexuality and do you have gay friends?”
“I do have gay friends,” Clark said. “When I am president I am going to make sure we treat every man, woman and child with dignity and respect and that means the opportunity to serve in the military.”
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell does not work everywhere,” Clark continued, though he did not go so far as to advocate its abandonment. He said simply, “The policy should be reviewed.”
Dean made an appeal for more communication across barriers. “I think most Americans don’t understand the gay and lesbian community,” he said. “Gays and lesbians should stand up and be proud of who they are.”
Kucinich was the only candidate who openly said he supported gay marriage.
A humorous moment during the debate came from one student who asked each of the candidates who they would want at a party to be a team player and act as a wingman if a “cutie” was across the room.
Kucinich grasped Sharpton’s shoulder and said, “My brother.” Sharpton said Mrs. Kerry and candidate Kerry said he would have to choose Sharpton “in order to keep an eye on my wife.”