"I don't think you are a bigot, but I think it was insensitive and I think you ought to apologize for it," Al Sharpton told Dean in the early moments of a hot, hip debate aimed at young voters.
"You were wrong Howard, you were wrong," added Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. The native Southerner bluntly told the former Vermont governor that "the last thing we need in the South is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need to do."
Dean, sharing a stage with seven of his eight presidential foes, was as blunt as Edwards in his reply. "I was not wrong, John Edwards," he said.
Dean said the point he was making in an interview with the Des Moines Register was that Democrats must find a way to appeal to poor Southern whites who vote Republican. It's against their economic self-interest to do so, he said.
"When white people and black people and brown people vote" together, he added, it "is the only time we make progress in this country."
Rep. Dick Gephardt was the only absentee as the Democrats vying to challenge President Bush gathered for their sixth debate in two months. The Missouri lawmaker chose to campaign in Iowa, site of the first caucuses.
The eight Democrats met in Fanueil Hall, a building rich with history — and an unlikely venue for a debate unlike any other.
That was clear from the outset, when moderator Anderson Cooper appeared on stage wearing an open-necked dress shirt — and invited the nationwide television audience to submit questions by text message. In addition to CNN, America's Rock the Vote sponsored the debate.
The candidates, too, dressed down for the event. Sen. Joe Lieberman wore a shirt and tie but no jacket; Edwards favored an open-necked, blue-and-white checked shirt and Wesley Clark and Rep. Dennis Kucinich opted for turtlenecks.
The Democratic hopefuls sat in a semicircle, the audience as close as it would be for a television entertainment program — which the debate seemed to be at times, as when hip videos designed to appeal to young voters flashed across the screen.
The questions came from the audience, rather than from the traditional panel of journalists, and some touched on the Boston Red Sox and the draft, issues that have drawn no mention in the earlier handful of debates.
Kerry of Massachusetts, drew the Red Sox question, and was asked whether he would have removed Boston's starting pitcher at the critical point in last month's Game 7 of a playoff series with the New York Yankees. He said he would have — that he was "throwing things at the television set" urging the manager to do so.
Asked about renewing the military draft, retired Gen. Clark said he opposes reviving it. He quickly pivoted to criticize the Bush administration for allowing the professional armed forces to become overextended and using reserves and National Guard units as they were not intended.