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Racial Issues Dominate Dem Debate

In their final debate before the pivotal Iowa caucuses in a week's time, Democratic candidates Sunday clashed over issues of race, with front-runner Howard Dean coming under attack for his record dealing with minorities.

Dean conceded grudgingly in the MSNBC debate that he never named a black or Latino to his cabinet during nearly 12 years as governor of Vermont.

"If you want to lecture people on race, you ought to have the background and track record to do that," Al Sharpton snapped at the Democratic presidential front-runner in an emotionally charged exchange in the final debate before next week's kick-off Iowa caucuses.

"I will take a backseat to no one in my commitment to civil rights in the United States of America," Dean said moments later, eager to have the last word.

Recent polling shows Dean and Gephardt in a close race in the state, with Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Edwards trailing.

The outcome if the Jan. 19 vote will begin the winnowing process in the race for the nomination. Dean hopes for a victory to validate his claim as campaign front-runner. Gephardt's aides say he must win. Kerry and Edwards hope for strong finishes to sustain their campaigns in New Hampshire, whose primary follows Iowa by eight days.

The two-hour debate was billed as the Iowa Brown and Black Presidential Forum, designed to focus the contenders on issues of concern to minorities, and Sharpton's aggressive questioning of Dean accomplished that.

"You keep talking about race," the former street activist chided Dean when he had a turn to ask a question. He said that not one "black or brown held a senior policy position, not one...It seems as though you have discovered blacks and browns during this campaign," he said.

Bristling, Dean said it was untrue. He said he had "a senior member of my staff" who was a minority.

Sharpton said he was asking about the Cabinet, which has a small number of members.

"No, we did not," conceded Dean, whose state has a population that is nearly 97 percent white. People in Iowa are nearly 94 percent white, meaning the exchanges over race were aimed to a wider audience, including voters in South Carolina, which holds a Feb. 3 primary.

Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, who is African-American as is Sharpton, defended Dean. "Rev. Sharpton, the fact of the matter is we can always blow up a racial debate and make people mad at each other."

Moments later, Dean returned to the subject, noting that he has the endorsements of more members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus than any other presidential hopeful.

But Sharpton ridiculed that, saying, "I don't think that answers the questions ... I think you only need co-signers if your credit is bad."

Dean was also scolded by Sen. John Edwards for Dean's remark last year that he wanted to appeal to voters with Confederate flags in their vehicles. Dean said the flag is "a painful symbol to African-Americans," but Edwards countered that it was an insult "to all Americans."

For much of the evening, it seemed that a candidate's place in the polls dictated how often and sharply he or she was attacked.

Edwards, who won the endorsement of the Des Moines Register on Sunday, was a target for Moseley-Braun, according to The New York Times. She hit him for voting with the president often, then attacking him on the campaign trail.

"You voted for the Patriot Act," she said. "You voted to deploy the missile defense system. And yet you stand up here and call Howard a hypocrite. This is not right."

"I was beginning to hope someone would attack me," said Sen. Joe Lieberman. No one did. The Connecticut senator is not competing in the caucuses, and lags in the New Hampshire polling.

Instead, they saved most of their ammunition for Dean, the surprise of the campaign so far, the former governor of a small state who moved from relative obscurity to front-runner during 2003.

Dean, leading in the polls in Iowa as well as nationwide, also drew criticism from Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio for saying he could balance the budget without cutting Pentagon spending. And Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri challenged him about whether he could cut payroll taxes without harming Social Security.

Dean, who has pledged to repeal the tax cuts Mr. Bush has won from Congress, said he could. "I think cutting the payroll tax is not a bad idea," he said. "We will not touch Social Security," he added, saying he had in mind an income tax credit that would help offset payroll taxes.

"The first priority is to balance the budget," he said - something he has previously pledged to do by midway through a second term in office.

Kucinich challenged Dean to say when he would cut middle class taxes, and said his statement not to cut the Pentagon budget "means you're going to cut ... funds for veterans, housing, health care, education."

Gephardt prodded him on Social Security, and Kerry even challenged him on his trademark issue - opposition to the Iraq war.

"I think Gov. Dean has had it both ways," he said. Kerry said that in fall 2002, Dean spoke in support of congressional legislation that would have given Mr. Bush the authority to use force in Iraq, so long as he notified Congress in advance.

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