DES MOINES, IOWA — DES MOINES, Iowa - Debating for the final time before the Iowa caucuses, front-runner Howard Dean tangled with a Democratic rival last night over his record on minority hiring as governor of Vermont.
At a presidential candidate forum centered on the concerns of ethnic minorities, the Rev. Al Sharpton, one of two African-Americans in the field, accused Dean of wanting to "lecture people on race" without taking aggressive steps to diversify his executive staff during 11 years as governor.
"It seems as though you have discovered blacks and browns during this campaign," said Sharpton, to laughter and applause from the audience at the Des Moines Convention Center.
Dean responded that he had appointed a minority candidate to a top position on his gubernatorial staff, but he conceded that all six members of his Cabinet were white. He also boasted that he had won more endorsements from black and Hispanic members of Congress than any of his opponents.
Sharpton retorted: "You only need co-signers if your credit is bad."
The exchange, between the leading candidate in the Democratic contest and one of those near the back of the pack, came just eight days before Iowans gather in precinct caucuses next Monday evening, the first real test of the 2004 race.
Like Iowa, which holds its caucuses one week from tonight, Dean's home state is overwhelmingly white and has one of the smallest minority populations in the country. The 2000 census counted fewer than 5,000 African-Americans living in Vermont.
The first test of African-American voting strength won't come until Feb. 3, in the South Carolina primary, where blacks are expected to cast 40 percent or more of the vote.
Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, the other African-American candidate on the stage last night, was quick to come to Dean's defense.
Turning on Sharpton, she said, "You can always blow up a racial debate and make people mad at each other. But ... people cannot afford a racial screaming match. We have to come together as one nation to get past these problems."
Braun also took aim at one of the presumed favorites in Iowa, saying she found it "a little bit shocking" to hear Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri promise that he would double the share of federal contracts for minority companies if he became president.
She said that "in all the years" Gephardt served as a House leader, there had "been precious little coming out" of that body "in terms of minority entrepreneurship and equity capital." Gephardt agreed that more needed to be done but said Democrats were at a disadvantage in the House, which has had a Republican majority for the past eight years.
At one point in the two-hour debate, sponsored by the Iowa Black and Brown Forum and televised nationally by MSNBC, Dean appeared to struggle with a question about citizenship for members of the U.S. armed forces.
Dean hesitated when asked by moderator Maria Celeste Arraras of Telemundo, a Spanish language network, if he favors automatic citizenship for members of the armed services who are called to combat duty.
The former governor said he agreed with the thrust of the idea, but worried that it might make the military a "haven" for illegal immigrants who are "struggling to get by" and desperate to become citizens."
More than 37,000 noncitizens are on active duty. President Bush issued an executive order in 2002 that allows them to apply for citizenship immediately.
Dean said he feared there could be "a flood of desperate kids going into the military and ending up in Iraq" under an automatic citizenship plan. It was not clear whether he was aware that one of his backers, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez of Illinois, whom he had singled out in the audience moments before, has proposed legislation to do exactly what the questioner asked.
John Kerry, running third in the Iowa polls, did not share Dean's hesitation. The Massachusetts senator, a decorated Vietnam veteran, said he disagreed with Dean and would approve the citizenship idea "immediately. Period. End of issue."
Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, a fervent opponent of the Iraq war, joined other candidates in criticizing Bush's recently announced plan for a manned mission to Mars.
"Maybe he's looking for the weapons of mass destruction, still," Kucinich said.
Gephardt said the government's first priority should be to create more jobs in America, "rather than going off on some diversionary mission that may not even fit into our space program. We need to pay attention to what's going on here. We need to get rid of this president" and focus on the problems of "the middle class."
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut managed to get in a dig against retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the only candidate who ducked the debate. He said he found it "odd and troubling" that Clark had been quoted as saying recently that there would not be another major terrorist strike if he became president.
"Let's level with the American people," said Lieberman, who said the "fact is that there is something to fear."
Earlier, Edwards picked up the endorsement of the state's largest newspaper, The Des Moines Register, which called the North Carolina senator "a cut above the others." Kerry won the backing over the weekend of three smaller Iowa papers in Burlington, Davenport and Iowa City.
Dean's campaign got a lift last week from endorsements by Sen. Tom Harkin, the state's most popular Democrat, and former Sen. Bill Bradley, who gained the support of more than a third of the Iowa Democrats in the 2000 presidential caucuses.
At the same, however, Dean received another wave of negative publicity after his comments denigrating the Iowa caucuses, made on a Canadian television program four years ago, surfaced here.
Asked last night about his statement in 2000 that the caucus system is dominated by special interests and can produce "a president who is beholden to one extreme or the other," Dean brushed aside his remark as old news.
"I frankly think that people are a little tired of having debates about who said what four years ago or who said what six years ago or eight years ago or 10 years ago," said Dean. "I've more or less lived in Iowa for two years ... I'm looking forward to the caucus vote, as hard as I've worked."
Recent Iowa polling has shown Dean with an advantage of 2 to 7 percentage points over Gephardt, who won here 16 years ago and may have trouble challenging for the nomination if he doesn't come in first again.
Kerry, looking for a boost heading into New Hampshire, where his candidacy has slipped, has been running third in the Iowa polls. Edwards, who appears to have gained ground here in recent weeks, is fourth.
The caucuses are expected to attract a much larger turnout than four years ago, weather permitting. Only about 61,000 of the state's 600,000 registered Democrats participated last time.
Estimates of this year's turnout range upward of 100,000 and could rival or surpass the record participation of about 126,000 activists in 1988, the last time a large field of candidates competed in this state for the Democratic nomination.