Candidates Criticize Dean for Confederate Flag Remark

A dispute over gun control between John F. Kerry and Howard Dean moved on to the subject of civil rights yesterday, as the Massachusetts senator chided his presidential rival for declaring, “I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.”

Kerry proclaimed that the statement, made by Dean on Friday as the two clashed over gun issues, was both insensitive racially and “a level of pandering for votes that is devoid of principle.”

In a telephone interview from Iowa, where he was campaigning, Kerry added: “I think Howard Dean is fast becoming the say-anything-to-get-elected candidate. . . . He’s shifting fundamental positions to get votes. It says little about `straight talk’ and even less about principles.”

A Dean aide dismissed the criticism, saying that Dean had previously used Confederate flag imagery in his speech making and that his comment was not about race, but broadening the field of potential Democratic voters.

“We can’t beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross-section,” said Dean spokeswoman Tricia Enright. She said Dean is reaching out to “white Southern workers who have been voting Republican for 30 years and have nothing to show for it.”

Other candidates joined Kerry in criticizing Dean yesterday.

“I don’t want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks,” US Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri said. “I will be the candidate for guys with American flags in their pickup trucks.”

Senator John Edwards of North Carolina called Dean’s remark “nothing short of offensive.”

“When a politician embraces one of the most divisive symbols in America, it is offensive to every American,” Edwards said. In a statement last night, Dean likened his rivals’ criticism to what he said were Richard M. Nixon’s attempts to divide “working people by race” and to split the Democratic base. “For my fellow Democratic opponents to sink to this level is really tragic,” Dean said. “The only way we’re going to beat George Bush is if southern white working families and African-American working families come together under the Democratic tent.”

Kerry and Dean clashed Friday as the senator criticized the former governor for saying he supported a federal assault weapons ban while running for president, even though he said in a signed 1992 National Rifle Association questionnaire that he opposed any state or federal restriction of semi-automatic firearms, a class that includes assault weapons.