War of Words Escalates Between Dean, GOP

Democratic Party boss Howard Dean, under fire for blunt comments about Republicans, refused to back down on Wednesday and said Republican critics were trying to divert attention from their own failures.

Republicans attacked Dean for saying in San Francisco on Monday, when asked about the lack of outreach to minorities by political parties, that Republicans are “pretty much a white, Christian party.”

Republicans accused Dean of trying to divide Americans by religion and faith. Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia called the comments “Howard Dean’s games of division and hate.” House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s spokesman, Ron Bonjean, said “Dean likes the taste of his own foot.”

Even Democrats grumbled about Dean’s judgment and choice of words.

But Dean, known for fiery rhetoric during his unsuccessful 2004 presidential campaign, stuck by his comments during an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show.

“It’s pretty hard to deny that predominantly that’s what the Republican Party looks like. It is a party controlled by the conservative Christian agenda,” the former Vermont governor said, adding “I’m a white Christian myself.”

He said Republicans were trying to make him the issue so they could dodge a discussion about the Iraq war, proposed changes to Social Security and other controversies.

“We believe that this is a diversion from the issues that really matter: Social Security and adequate jobs opportunities, strong public schools, strong defense where our troops aren’t pinned down when we should be doing something about Iran and North Korea, because those are real threats to America,” Dean said.

Dean’s comments in California followed his statement to a group of liberal activists last week that Republicans “never made an honest living in their lives.” Dean later said he was referring to Republican leaders.

After that, Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware said Dean did not speak for him or a majority of Democrats, and Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and former vice presidential nominee John Edwards also distanced themselves from Dean. All are potential 2008 presidential contenders.

With Democrats gaining strength in public opinion polls and winning some battles on Capitol Hill, party officials hoped to concentrate on their policy agenda and not spend time defending Dean, who will appear before Senate Democrats at a private luncheon on Thursday and the Democratic National Committee’s executive committee on Saturday.

“Did he make a mistake with these comments? Absolutely,” Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut told CNN on Wednesday. “Howard is doing a good job … he could have chosen better words.”