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Race a focus in Iowa presidential debate

Sharpton: 'We need people to do something about racism'

Howard Dean, left, talks with Joe Lieberman and Al Sharpton at the final debate before the Iowa Caucuses.
Howard Dean, left, talks with Joe Lieberman and Al Sharpton at the final debate before the Iowa Caucuses.

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DES MOINES, Iowa (CNN) -- The issue of race drew much attention at the last scheduled Democratic debate before the January 19 Iowa Caucuses -- the first referendum of the 2004 presidential campaign.

Sunday's debate reached an emotional peak when the Rev. Al Sharpton accused former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean of failing to appoint minorities during his tenure.

Dubbed the Iowa Brown & Black Presidential Forum, the debate was sponsored by a group that describes itself as a nonpartisan minority issues organization.

"It seems as though you discovered blacks and browns during this campaign," Sharpton said.

Dean, front-runner in several Iowa polls, responded, "I beg to differ with your statistics," and said African-Americans and Latinos did work in his state government.

When Sharpton asked whether any African-Amercians and Latinos served in Dean's Cabinet, a defensive Dean said, "We had a senior member of my staff."

Pressed as to whether that person was in his Cabinet, Dean acknowledged that none had been, but noted that the Cabinet contained only six people.

"If you want to lecture people on race, you ought to have the background and track record in order to do that," Sharpton said.

He was referring to Dean's citing of a Wall Street Journal study that found a white person with a drug conviction was more likely to be called back for a second job interview than was a black or Latino with a clean record.

"We tend to hire people like ourselves," Dean said. Political leaders must help whites overcome their "unconscious biases."

Again, Sharpton responded critically. "Just having conversations with whites, without real legislation, without real executive action, is to trivialize our problem. We don't need people talking to whites, we need people to do something about racism and about discrimination. Don't reduce this to a coffee shop conversation. We need action."

Race was a recurrent theme throughout the two-hour debate, held eight days before the caucuses, on the day that the country marks the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Although the issue may not resonate much in Iowa, where about 90 percent of the residents are white, it could play well to people in South Carolina, where more than half of voters could be minorities, and which hosts the campaign's second primary February 3. ('s interactive Election Calendar)

Even if they perform poorly elsewhere, anyone who performs well there could become a party broker.

Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, who is also black, took on Sharpton. "You can always blow up a racial debate and make people mad at each other, but I think it's time for us to talk about what are you going to do to bring people together, because this country cannot afford a racial screaming match. We have to come together as one nation to get past these problems."

Dean -- whose native state of Vermont is about 98 percent white -- responded to Sharpton himself, saying, "I believe I have more endorsements from both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus than any other candidate on this stage."

That did not impress Sharpton, who said Dean's discussion of endorsements did not address his question about his Cabinet makeup. "I think you only need co-signers if your credit is bad," said Sharpton, whose own campaign has been hamstrung by fund-raising difficulties.

Sharpton said institutional racism continues to thwart the advance of many minorities. "Fifty years ago, we had to watch out for people in white suits. Now, they have on pinstriped suits, and they discriminate against our advancement, they discriminate against our achievement and we're called divisive if we bring it up.

"We're divisive if we don't bring it up. Our fathers had to fight Jim Crow. Now, we have to fight James Crow Jr., Esquire."

Moseley Braun then turned her attention to Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, accusing him of having done "precious little" during the time he had served as House minority leader.

Gephardt applauded the work of Moseley Braun during her tenure as a senator from Illinois from 1992-1998 but said he had faced special circumstances in the House.

"The problem is, in the last few years, we've had people like [House Majority Leader Rep.] Tom Delay, [R-Texas] and [former Speaker of the House] Newt Gingrich to deal with," he said about the men, both of whom opposed affirmative action programs.

Dick Gephardt supporters rally in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sunday.
Dick Gephardt supporters rally in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sunday.

Sen. John Edwards, who grew up in the South, repeated his contention that the United States is divided into two countries, not just when it comes to racial equality but when it comes to economics and education, too. Edwards won a key endorsement Sunday by the state's largest newspaper, the Des Moines Register. (Full story)

Sen. John Kerry then brought the conversation back to the common enemy among the speakers. The problem "is not just of black and brown, it's one of poor people, it's one of power in America -- the powerful, the friends of George Bush."

Kerry cited the Medicare bill and energy bill as loaded with billions of dollars' worth of gifts to special interests.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut said President Bush's priorities were visible in where he had put the nation's money -- "in the pockets of the wealthiest of Americans, who don't need it."

Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio drew a laugh when he took the president to task for his suggestion that the United States try to give new goals to the nation's space program.

"I've been wondering why the president would, while we're still in Iraq, talk about going to the moon or going to Mars," Kucinich said. "Maybe he's looking for the weapons of mass destruction still."

He called for "a president who's going to do first things first," such as canceling the tax cuts, removing U.S. troops from Iraq and cutting the "bloated Pentagon budget."

Gephardt concurred, calling for the economy to take center stage. "We need to get rid of this president and bring in a Democratic president who will pay attention to the priorities of the middle-class people here at home, not on Mars."

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark was the sole candidate who did not show up. He has chosen instead to focus his efforts on New Hampshire, which holds its primary January 27.

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