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Bring down S.C. flag, Democrats demand

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© St. Petersburg Times, published January 18, 2000

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Exactly one week before the Iowa caucuses, the first question Al Gore and Bill Bradley fielded during a debate Monday concerned the Confederate flag flying over the Capitol of South Carolina.

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The two Democrats, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, answered even more forcefully that they believe the flag should come down as the presidential campaign rhetoric over the issue escalates.

The vice president called the Confederate flag "a hurtful symbol to millions, not only African-Americans, because it recalls the pain of slavery."

However, Gore said that as president he would not adhere to an NAACP-led boycott of South Carolina.

Bradley also condemned the Confederate flag and said it should come down.

"For many politicians it's dangerous to tell the truth," the former New Jersey senator said. "There is no subject about which that is truer than the issue of race."

The debate underscored the differences over the Confederate flag issue between Democrats and Republicans. The Republican front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, has said the flag is a state issue that South Carolina residents should resolve. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Bush's main challenger for the GOP nomination, has issued conflicting statements about the flag but now agrees with Bush.

Both Republicans hope to win the Feb. 19 primary in South Carolina and avoid offending conservative voters there.

"It is only the Republican candidates for president who are so scared of the extreme right wing that they will be tolerant of intolerance, lest they offend the offensive," Gore said.

On the King holiday, Gore and Bradley directed their concerns about race from North High School to an audience far beyond Iowa and the first-primary state of New Hampshire.

In both states, African-Americans make up less than 2 percent of the population. But black Democrats will play a critical role in eventually deciding the nomination as the primary race advances into March and into New York, California and the South.

Gore and Bradley generally agreed on a variety of race-related issues during the debate, the last before the caucuses Monday.

The Democrats support affirmative action and say those policies are needed to combat discrimination. They indicated they would appoint Supreme Court justices who are sensitive to racial issues.

Gore, asked which justice his appointments would more closely resemble, the liberal Thurgood Marshall or the conservative Clarence Thomas, replied: "Two words. Thurgood Marshall."

The candidates pledged to appoint diverse staffs, extend health care to more minorities and improve education, even as they sparred over the details.

They agreed that 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez should not be sent back to Cuba from Miami until the father comes to this country and argues for custody. And they defended the practice of allowing Cuban refugees who make it to American soil to stay even if Haitians and others cannot.

Racial profiling, which describes how some police officers focus on stopping minorities, provoked the sharpest exchange of the night. Both Gore and Bradley said they would sign an executive order banning the practice as one of their first acts as president.

"But we have a president now," Bradley told Gore. "You serve with him. I want you to walk down that hall, walk into his office and say, "Sign that executive order today.' "

Gore quickly responded.

"I don't think President Bill Clinton needs a lecture from Bill Bradley on how to stand up and fight for African-Americans and Latinos," the vice president shot back.

But when Gore went on about "walking the walk," he was greeted by a smattering of boos.

Nationally, opinion polls indicate Gore has a substantial lead over Bradley among black voters. Clinton routinely scores higher job approval ratings among black voters than white voters, and much of that support appears to be transferring to Gore.

Yet Bradley, a former New York Knicks star, has made promoting racial harmony one of the top issues of his campaign. His supporters predict support will rise among black voters as more of them get to know him.

Gore returned to a tactic he has used in previous debates: pointing to individuals in the crowd or dropping names to underscore his points.

Forced to defend his criticism that Bradley's health care plan would take Medicaid and health coverage away from blacks and Hispanics, Gore introduced a black and Hispanic family in the audience.

When talk turned to diversity in the White House, Gore pointed out that three Clinton Cabinet secretaries who are minorities were in the audience.

When a black Iowa doctor stood up to ask a question, Gore told her he recognized her.

Even when the Democrats were asked about Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker's racist comments, Gore tried to illustrate that he is better connected than Bradley.

Bradley said as a member of the Knicks, he would take white players aside if they made racially insensitive comments and counsel them. "I wouldn't be disappointed if they fired him," Bradley said of Rocker.

But Gore said he had spoken to civil rights leader and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and Braves executive Henry Aaron about the incident. Gore said he condemns Rocker's comments but noted that King also preached redemption.

Both candidates often refer to race in their speeches.

Sunday in Waterloo, Bradley told a story from his days as a Little League baseball player in Crystal City, Mo. He recalled how his entire team would walk out of restaurants that would not serve black teammates.

Now, Bradley said, discrimination comes not from segregated restaurants but from banks that refuse to loan money to black business people to run those restaurants.

"I want you to know that I know what you still feel, I still see," Bradley said.

Gore has stories of his own, of course.

The vice president often recalls how his father would show him shackles in old Tennessee homes where slaves were kept. He also points out his father lost his Senate seat in part because of his support for civil rights.

Earlier Monday, Gore spoke at memorial services for King at King's church in Atlanta.

Bradley spoke at a King event at Drake University in Des Moines and brought along a friend, former Boston Celtic great Bill Russell.

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