Howard Dean, under fire from his Democratic rivals, refused to apologize Tuesday night for saying the party must court Southerners with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.
"Were you wrong, Howard? Were you wrong to say that?" Sen. John Edwards challenged the former Vermont governor in a hot, hip campaign debate.
"No, I wasn't, John Edwards," Dean shot back, adding that to win, Democrats must appeal to working-class white voters in the South who consistently support Republicans.
The exchange was the sharpest of the night in a debate that generally veered away from campaign issues such as Iraq and the economy, and into areas of interest to younger voters.
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, asked about gay and lesbian rights, said he would give gays "the opportunity to serve in the U.S. armed forces." Under a policy in effect since the Clinton administration, gays are permitted to serve in the military if they do not disclose their sexual orientation.
Asked whether they had ever used marijuana, Edwards, Dean and Sen. John Kerry said they have. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Clark, Al Sharpton and Sen. Joe Lieberman said they had not. Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun declined to answer.
Rep. Dick Gephardt was the only absentee as the Democrats vying to challenge President Bush gathered for their sixth debate in two months.
That debate was different from previous ones. Moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN 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, Rock the Vote sponsored the debate.
The candidates, too, dressed down. Lieberman wore a shirt and tie but no jacket; Edwards favored an open-necked, blue-and-white checked shirt, and Clark and Kucinich opted for turtlenecks.
Kerry, who did not join in the clash over the flag, assailed Dean over gun control, saying the former governor has been "endorsed more times by the NRA (National Rifle Association) than the NEA (National Education Association)."
Dean, who served as governor of a rural state with a low homicide rate, retorted that he supports the existing assault weapons ban and other federal gun control laws. In addition, he said each state should decide what additional restrictions it favors.
Poll: Four in 10 say they won't vote for Bush next year
ALBANY, N.Y. _ More than four in 10 voters nationwide say they definitely plan to vote against President Bush next year _ more than plan to vote for him, according to a poll released Tuesday.
The survey by Marist College's Institute for Public Opinion found 44 percent of the voters questioned said they planned to definitely vote against the Republican president while 38 percent said they would support his re-election.
The poll had the president's approval rating at 53 percent, down from 70 percent in a poll it conducted in April.
Among Democratic voters, there was no clear choice about who should be the party's candidate. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean led the way with 16 percent.
Marist's telephone poll of 788 registered voters was conducted Oct. 27-29 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
The candidates were asked by a young woman at Tuesday's debate who they would most like to "party with."
Rep. Dennis Kucinich would like to cut loose with Al Sharpton, but the reverend said he'd prefer Sen. John Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry.
"I was going to choose Carol Moseley Braun," Kerry said to Sharpton. "But now I'm going to have to choose you so I can keep an eye on my wife."
Sen. Joe Lieberman joked he might not choose his wife, either.
"I hope my wife understands this," he said. "I'd like to party with the young lady who asked that question."
Maybe Heinz Kerry could see what was coming.
In an interview published in the Boston Herald Tuesday, she said nine-way presidential debates are "silly" and a waste of time for the candidates and the voters.
"I don't think it really helps the American people, I don't think it helps the candidates," Heinz Kerry said.
_ ASSOCIATED PRESS