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Inside Politics

Dean gains endorsements in the South

Image of Dean looking on as he gets the endorsement of Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Maryland.
Howard Dean, left, wins the backing of U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, center, who is chairman of the Congressionl Black Caucus.

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Howard Dean
Elijah Cummings

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Challenging his critics' view that he lacks appeal in the South, Howard Dean won the endorsement Saturday of the Congressional Black Caucus chairman as well as the backing of more than a dozen state and local lawmakers in Georgia in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland said the endorsement was his own and not representative of the 39-member caucus he leads, telling Dean supporters at a private campaign stop in Atlanta that the former Vermont governor brings a much-needed influx of new energy to the Democratic Party.

"We cannot win this race by doing the same things we've been doing," Cummings said. "I thank Howard Dean for making my little girl's dream -- and my dream -- his dream."

In Atlanta for the campaign stop, Dean said the key to winning the South in a presidential election was the vote of the African-American community, a traditional base of support for the Democratic Party. But he said that winning the nation would require "everyone's support."

"We're going to start with the people who brought us to the dance," he said. "Then we're going to go for swing voters."

Critics have said Dean will have a difficult time winning the South.

In November, he drew the wrath of his Democratic challengers when he said he wanted to be a candidate for "guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks."

Although he had been using a similar phrase in stump speeches for months, Dean was attacked as he emerged as the Democratic front-runner. Many blacks and Southerners said they were upset by Dean's comment once it reached the front pages of newspapers and the top of television broadcasts.

Dean, who has since apologized for the remark, said he was trying to state his intention to make the party more inclusive and bring poor Southern whites back from the Republican Party into the Democratic fold.

Cummings' endorsement -- and that of the gathered Georgia lawmakers -- followed Tuesday's high-profile endorsement of another key Southerner, former Vice President Al Gore.

"We're the answer to the question of whether Howard Dean can campaign in the South," said state Rep. Nan Orrock of Georgia. "This is the South. We're Southerners. We're for Howard Dean."

In a statement released Saturday by the Dean campaign, Cummings said he believes Dean would be "a president of strength, moral conviction and balance."

Image of Dean greeting supporters as he exited his aircraft at Fulton County Airport in Atlanta, Georgia.
Dean greets supporters as he exits his aircraft at Fulton County Airport-Brown Field in Atlanta, Georgia.

"These are difficult and dangerous times for all Americans," he said. "These are times that cry out for a president ... who will lead us in doing what must be done to defend our country while we also affirm the fundamental moral principles that bind us together as a nation."

Amid the endorsements, Dean came under a second day of attacks from another Democratic candidate, U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri.

Gephardt released statements criticizing Dean over tax incentives given to companies who set up insurance business in Vermont while Dean was governor. The program, reported Friday in The Boston Globe, gave tax breaks to companies, including the now-defunct Enron Corp., for setting up insurance subsidiaries in the state.

On Saturday, Gephardt called for Dean to release all records of meetings he had with representatives of Enron. On Friday, Gephardt said it was hypocritical for Dean to have attacked "President Bush's special treatment of Enron" while creating "a tax shelter for that very same corporate criminal."

But a spokesman for Dean dismissed the issue, saying the system was in place well before the candidate became governor. Enron was one of 600 companies to benefit from the program, and it helped attract a lot of business to the state, said spokesman Jay Carson.

"It brought legitimate and environmentally friendly business to Vermont," Carson said. "We are not going to make any apologies for it."

CNN's Steve Brusk and Adam Levine contributed to this report.

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