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Inside Politics

Dems ponder PCs or Macs and a strategy for the South

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BOSTON (CNN) -- PCs or Macs?

Have you ever smoked marijuana?

Which of your competitors would you rather party with?

Those were just a few of the unpredictable questions that helped lighten and liven up Tuesday night's debate among eight of the nine Democratic presidential candidates. But as in previous encounters among the White House hopefuls, the sharpest barbs in Boston here were aimed at the frontrunner, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Both the Rev. Al Sharpton and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards jumped on Dean's recent comment that he wanted "to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pick-up trucks."

Sharpton called it insensitive and said Dean appeared too arrogant to admit he was wrong. Edwards chimed in, "The last thing we need in the South is someone like you coming down and telling us what to do."

Dean held his ground, insisting that the Democratic party would never win a national election unless it reaches out to all voters, including poor whites in the South who've leaned heavily Republican.

But 25-year-old Sekou Dilday of Roxbury, Massachusetts, who raised the flag comment with Dean, saying he was "extremely offended" by it, told reporters afterwards that although he had earlier been leaning toward Massachusetts Sen. Kerry or Dean, with last night's answer, Dean "blew it."

Political observers criticized Dean, too, saying he could have stated his desire to broaden the Democratic "tent" with greater sensitivity to Blacks and to moderate Southerners.

But everyone agreed Dean had seized on an enduring problem for Democrats: how to make sure they are not locked out of the South in 2004.

With Tuesday's gubernatorial elections in Kentucky and Mississippi turning both State houses over to the GOP, Democrats were rudely reminded again of what an uphill climb they face in the South. And for all of the fireworks in Tuesday's debate, Dean's position as number one in most polls seems unlikely to change.

Meanwhile Dean continued to push for the Democratic nomination by publicly declaring he may be ready to forgo Federal campaign matching funds and the spending limits that come with them, in order to raise even more money in private contributions.

Facing a Bush campaign juggernaut of $200 million and up, Democrats lie awake at night worrying about how they can possibly compete between now and the national conventions next summer.

Dean has more than any other Democrat, around $25 million raised from an unprecedented 238,000 contributors, and his campaign is asking the half-million subscribers to the Dean Web site what he should do.

But the wording of the question makes it seem all but certain Dean will skip public financing to raise and spend more than the limit of $45 million during the primaries.

Without mentioning Dean by name, the chairman of the Democratic National Convention, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, told me on "Inside Politics" Tuesday, "We can't compete with the Republicans when it comes to money or incumbency. But you are going to see a sustained effort by Democratic office holders around the country, uniting to make sure our candidate is competitive financially and issues-wise."

Judy Woodruff is CNN's prime anchor and senior correspondent. She also anchors "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics," weekdays at 3:30 pm ET.

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