Nashua, N.H. — (AP) Howard Dean said Wednesday he regretted the pain he caused by saying that the Democratic Party must court Southerners who display the symbol of the Confederacy in their pickup trucks. Speaking in New York about campaign finance, the former Vermont governor sought to quell the dispute that erupted over his recent comment and his unwillingness to apologize for it during Tuesday night's debate.
"I regret the pain that I have caused, but I will tell you there is no easy way to do this and there will be pain as we discuss it and we must face this together hand in hand as Dr. (Martin Luther) King and Abraham Lincoln asked us to do," Dean said.
Rival John Edwards, who had complained on Tuesday about Northerners telling Southerners what to do, said during a campaign stop in New Hampshire that he accepted Dean's apology.
"It sounds like he's done the right thing. It would have been better if he'd done it last night," the North Carolina senator said, adding that it remains to be seen how the American voters view his statements.
Dean came under fire from his foes Tuesday night in a Democratic presidential debate that veered from hip to heated. The candidate refused to recant his recent statement that the party must court Southerners who display the symbol of the Confederacy in their pickup trucks.
"It's a racist symbol but I also think the Democratic Party has to be a big tent," Dean said Tuesday night. "Poor white people need to vote their economic interest."
Earlier Wednesday, one of Dean's rivals sought to undercut his front-running status, criticizing the former Vermont governor's comments and his refusal to apologize.
"Howard Dean offended both blacks and whites in the South by using the Confederate flag as a political symbol and should admit he was wrong," Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut said during a campaign stop in New Hampshire, adding, "a leader has to be strong enough to admit a mistake."
Edwards and Al Sharpton sharply challenged Dean on the debate stage, and even one prominent Democratic officeholder who has yet to endorse any of the contenders questioned Dean's strategy.
"Governor Dean was trying to reach out to disenfranchised voters in the South, but he needs to be more careful," said Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico. "I don't think this is serious, but it has put a little bit of a dent in his front-runner status."
Dean's rivals can only hope so, with the kickoff Iowa caucus and New Hampshire presidential primary contests less than three months away and the former Vermont governor continuing to run strongly in polls in both states.
And even as the debate was unfolding, there was fresh evidence of the difficulties Democrats face in the South as they prepare to challenge President Bush next year.
In off-year balloting hundreds of miles from the debate site, Republicans elected a governor in Kentucky for the first time in 32 years and ousted the incumbent Democratic governor in Mississippi.
And dented or not, Dean already was moving on.
In remarks Wednesday in New York City, he was asking 600,000 supporters to decide whether he should drop out of the system of public financing for presidential elections and the campaign spending limits that go with it.
If so, he would be the first Democrat to do so since the post-Watergate spending system was created in the 1970s.
Rep. Dick Gephardt was the only absentee Tuesday night as the Democrats gathered for their sixth debate in two months. The Missouri lawmaker chose to campaign in Iowa, site of the caucuses Jan. 19.
Whatever the impact of the flap over the flag, the eight-way candidates' debate stood apart from the other clashes sanctioned by the Democratic Party in recent weeks. Hosted by CNN and Rock the Vote, it blended edgy videos produced by each of the campaigns to appeal to young voters with cheeky questions from members of the audience.
Asked whether they had ever used marijuana, Edwards, Dean and Sen. John Kerry said they have. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Clark, Sharpton and Lieberman said they had not. Alone among the eight, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun declined to answer.
Sekou Diyday, a 25-year-old supermarket buyer from Boston, triggered the clash over the Confederate flag question when he told Dean he was "extremely offended" by comments the former governor made in an interview with The Des Moines Register.
Dean responded by quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as saying he wanted to bring together the sons of slave holders and the sons of slaves. "And I think we need to talk to white Southern workers about how they vote, because when white people and black people and brown people vote together in this country, that's the only time that we make social progress."
But Sharpton and Edwards quickly dissented.
Sharpton said Dean had misquoted King. "You can't bring a Confederate flag to the table of brotherhood," he said.
"You are no bigot, but you appear to be too arrogant to say, `I'm wrong' and go on."
Edwards was next to challenge Dean.
"Were you wrong, Howard? Were you wrong to say that?"
"No, I wasn't, John Edwards," he said.