NEW YORK -- Presidential contender Howard Dean yesterday apologized for causing pain by saying the Democratic Party should reach out to men who display the Confederate flag in their trucks.
Dean's comments came after blistering attacks from Democratic rivals at a candidate forum in Boston Tuesday night. Speaking in New York about his decision to let supporters decide whether his campaign should forgo federal matching funds, Dean launched his speech with a pointed offer of contrition aimed at stemming criticism over his flag remark.
"I started this discussion in a clumsy way," Dean told an audience at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. "This discussion will be painful, and I regret the pain that I may have caused either to African-American or Southern white voters."
Later, at a Planned Parenthood forum in Manchester, N.H., Dean said his remarks in New York were an apology. Dean said he knew some of his black supporters were upset and "I felt that it was appropriate to apologize to them."
Dean was referring to an interview published last Saturday in the Des Moines Register in which he said he wanted to be "the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks. We can't beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross-section of Democrats."
Dean's apology yesterday contrasted with the stance he took Tuesday night when he angrily defended his assertion that men who fly the Confederate flag should not be an ignored part of the electorate. One Democratic rival, Al Sharpton, labeled him arrogant for his refusal to say he was wrong.
Yesterday Dean conceded he had broached the topic indelicately but with good intention, saying, "I will tell you, there is no easy way to do this. There will be pain as we discuss it. We must face it together."
Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, a fellow Democratic contender, denounced Dean's offer of regret as a halfway effort. "Rather than politics as usual, Howard Dean should have taken responsibility for his rhetoric and simply said `I was wrong,' " Kerry said.
But Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, who offered some of the fiercest criticism of Dean Tuesday night, said he was satisfied with Dean's offer of regret.
"It sounds like he is doing the right thing," Edwards said during a campaign stop in New Hampshire. "It would have been better if he had done it last night."
Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager, said that no matter what Dean had done or said on Tuesday night his fellow Democrats were poised to pounce. Dean's rivals "kept coming after him," Trippi said. "I don't think the night could have been changed dramatically from where they were coming from."
The flag flap had been intensifying since Dean made his remarks in response to questions about his stance on gun control -- one he characterizes as support for the 1994 federal ban on assault weapons, despite having signed a questionnaire in 1992 reflecting his opposition to restrictions, state or federal, on the weapons.
Dean has said repeatedly that he wants to make race an issue that is discussed and dissected as part of the 2004 presidential bid. He has angered his competitors by saying he is the only candidate discussing matters of race before white audiences. And he came under criticism for saying in 1994 that he supported means testing for affirmative action, though on the stump he offers unqualified backing for the policy.
The flag flap has been the most contentious issue touching on race to surface in the campaign. Tuesday night he sought to put the comment in context, saying, "I think the Confederate flag is a racist symbol. But I think there are a lot of poor people who fly that flag because the Republicans have been dividing us by race since 1968 with their Southern-race strategy."
Blease Graham, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina-Columbia, said Dean's supposition that only poor whites fly the Confederate flag is flawed. "They aren't poor people," Graham said. "These are in many instances economically well-endowed leaders of the state."
As an object of continuing dispute, the flag -- which has prompted the NAACP to mount an economic boycott of South Carolina or flying it on its statehouse grounds -- should have been expected to cause an uproar, Graham said.
"To touch that flag is like to touch flypaper," he said. "This is one of those issues that evokes a feeling."
Staff reporters Glen Johnson and Joanna Weiss contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was used.