The "Rock the Vote" forum in Boston's Faneuil Hall was supposed to be a feel-good affair, a chance for the candidates to "connect" with America's youth. It was a "Rock the Vote" event in 1992, after all, where Bill Clinton cheerfully told a young crowd that he preferred boxers over briefs.
Front-running candidate Howard Dean found it to be quite different, though, after he came under fierce attack for recent comments that he made about the need to appeal to Southern whites "with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks."
After the debate, Dean dismissed the criticism as "just political silliness." It's true he'd made similar comments previously about white voters and Confederate flags, with no resulting controversy, and he said that he meant it as a call for a broad Democratic constituency.
But his opponents, who view the former Vermont governor as the candidate to beat, seemed disinclined to offer him the benefit of the doubt.
Rev. Al Sharpton, one of two African-American candidates in the race, led the assault, saying Dean's comments were "more like Stonewall Jackson than Jesse Jackson." Sharpton added, "Most poor Southern whites don't wear a Confederate flag, and you ought not to try to stereotype that," he continued, to hearty applause from the college-age audience.
Dean responded by saying that he too was offended by the flag, but that Democrats needed to appeal to "poor white people" if they were to win a national election.
But Sharpton's criticism was immediately followed by an angry lecture from Sen. John Edwards, who has been outspokenly critical of Dean's comments since they were published Nov. 1 in the Des Moines Register. "The last thing we need in the South is someone like you coming down and telling us what to do," he said, jabbing his finger toward a seated Dean.
"Unless I missed something, Governor Dean still has not said he was wrong," Edwards said. "Were you wrong, Howard?"
Dean shot back: "No, I wasn't, John Edwards, because people who vote who fly the Confederate flag, I think they are wrong because I think the Confederate flag is a racist symbol. But I think there are lot of poor people who fly that flag because the Republicans have been dividing us by race since 1968 with their Southern race strategy."
In the post-debate spin room, Dean seemed almost mournful about the tone of the night's events.
"I do think the tone of the attacks was unfortunate tonight, because those kinds of personal attacks are not going to achieve the goal that we seek, which is to make sure that George Bush is not reelected to another term," he told a crush of reporters.
He also singled out Edwards and Kerry for criticism. "I think that for Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards to claim that I'm a racist, which is essentially what they did, is going to hurt their campaigns more than I am. I think people know that I'm not a bigot."
The attacks on Dean were not entirely unexpected, given his status as the apparent front-runner. He is leading in the polls in New Hampshire, and is in a close race with former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt in Iowa. (Gephardt, in fact, was the only candidate not to show up at the event, choosing to stay in Iowa and campaign.) And such has been the strength of his Internet-driven fundraising that his campaign is considering an option that until now was the exclusive domain of the Bush campaign: forgoing federal matching funds in exchange for avoiding limits on spending during the primary campaign. According to a report Tuesday night by the Associated Press, the campaign is about to announce a "vote" by supporters on whether to bust the spending caps.
Judging by early reaction on the Dean Web site, the vote will overwhelmingly support spending the extra money. But Dean will no doubt come in for more criticism from his rivals if he ignores the spending limits.
For the rest of the field, by contrast, the "Rock the Vote" event was mostly an opportunity to dress casually (in some cases) and to talk about familiar subjects. John Kerry, in an open collar, talked about his experience in Vietnam and in the antiwar movement. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, wearing a black mock-turtleneck, criticized the Bush administration's conduct of military operations in Iraq. Edwards discussed his rural, working-class roots, Rep. Dennis Kucinich talked about his plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, Sen. Joe Lieberman talked about his plans to create jobs, and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun talked about the need for women to have a higher profile in presidential politics.
Sharpton, dressed in his customary three-piece suit, once again had most of the night's punch lines. "I come from the [Martin Luther] King movement," he said. "We believe in dreams. Mr. Bush believes in hallucinations."
The event did have its lighter moments: The candidates were asked if they smoked marijuana, and Edwards, Dean and Kerry said they had, while Sharpton, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio said they had not. Braun declined to answer. And as a group, the candidates revealed they favored PCs over Macs.
And Dean tried to keep his sense of humor. Reacting to criticism by Kerry over his position on gun control, Dean grinned and said, "I told a group of press people in Iowa, the reason I knew I was the front-runner is that I keep picking buckshot out of my rear end all the time."
It's certain Dean is in for more buckshot in the coming days. As the storm over his comments on Southern whites show, the plain-talking style that is so appealing to many frustrated Democrats can be troublesome to his candidacy, especially now that he's receiving much greater scrutiny than when he was an underdog candidate. Dean made virtually identical comments as far back as the DNC meeting last February, telling the crowd that "white folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals on the back ought to be voting with us because their kids don't have health insurance either, and their kids need better schools, too." Back then, he received standing ovations from the crowd and glowing reviews in the media.
He will also be blasted for his apparent desire to withdraw from the public finance system, which -- when he was a poor underdog early in 2003 -- he said he would abide by, contrasting his poverty with the campaign of President Bush. (The Bush campaign did not abide by the primary spending limits in 2000, and won't this year.)
But if his recent past is any indication, Dean will try to turn the assaults upon him to his advantage. Back on June 22, after a contentious appearance on "Meet the Press" in which he appeared to stumble under tough questioning, Dean supporters rallied to his defense by pouring in donations on his Web site. Tonight, after CNN host Anderson Cooper asked him about a past comment on gay partnerships, Dean accusingly fired back: "You sound like Tim Russert."