Under pressure from friends and foes alike, Howard Dean apologized Wednesday for urging Democrats to court Southern whites who display Confederate flags on their pickup trucks.
"We do want to reach out to Southern white voters, but we don't want to do it at the expense of African-American voters," Dean told CBS News Correspondent Dan Raviv.
"I shouldn't have used the symbol of the Confederate flag, because it's a very divisive symbol, and a great many Americans see it as a racial symbol that stands for slavery and injustice," Dean said. "It would've been better if I hadn't have used that."
Dean had already expressed similar sentiments in a call to presidential rival Al Sharpton, a black activist from New York. He also had talked to several party leaders, including former President Jimmy Carter, during one of the most tumultuous days of his front-running campaign.
He hoped to put to rest a controversy that grew since last week, when he told a newspaper that he wanted to be "the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks." Defending his moderate gun control policies, the former Vermont governor said, "We can't beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross-section of Democrats."
He refused to apologize during a Tuesday night debate, even to admit a bad choice of words. With pressure building, he conceded Wednesday that his explanation was clumsy.
"If he didn't realize as a candidate for the nomination that his words were poorly chosen and that he should say he was wrong, what does it say about his judgment as the actual nominee?" said Waring Howe Jr., a member of the Democratic National Committee in South Carolina.
The state holds a critical Feb. 3 primary, and at least half of Democratic voters in South Carolina are black.
"It was an idiotic thing to say," said Howe, an uncommitted Democrat who has considered Dean to be one of his top three candidates. "It hurts him with African-American voters who find the Confederate flag offensive and it hurts him with progressive whites like myself who don't like the image he projected of the South."
The Confederate flag was the symbol of the secessionist, slave-holding southern states during the American Civil War from 1861-65.
Even as he apologized, Dean said he stood by his broader point that Democrats must court Southern whites who have voted for Republicans and received nothing in return.
"I am determined to do two things," he said. "One is to talk about race openly. We still have enormous racial problems and racial disparities. And the other is to reach out to Southern white voters, based on their economic interests.
Despite the criticism, Dean could find reason to cheer after a trying day, with late word that he was getting a prized presidential endorsement from the largest union in the AFL-CIO labor federation. The announcement was to come Thursday from the 1.6 million-member Service Employees International Union, among the most racially and ethnically diverse in the labor federation, Democratic campaign sources told the AP.