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Demo Derby this week takes note of the furor over Democratic front-runner Howard Dean’s appeal to Southern voters who display the Confederate battle flag. They need health insurance, too, Dean argued way back in February, so they should vote for me.

Eager to seize any issue they might use to inflict damage on Dean, his rivals belatedly pounced on his Confederate flag remark last weekend and especially in a “Rock the Vote” debate Tuesday night during which Dean at first refused to apologize for wooing the folks who sport the Stars and Bars on their pickup trucks.

Demo Derby pushes Dean back a bit for the damage he suffered during the flag fracas, the damage consisting mostly of the time and effort he had to consume by apologizing and the image he created of a candidate who stiffened when under attack.

When confronted during the debate by the Rev. Al Sharpton and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, Dean seemed as if his shirt had been poured full of plaster of Paris.

The New York Times editorial page — which, given Dean’s stands on most issues, should be rooting for him — tut-tutted that he will need to prove that his handling of the flag furor was “not a symptom of something more haunting, like a pattern of misspeaking or a hardheaded combativeness that makes it impossible to give way with grace.”

A hidden benefit in the flag fracas for Dean? He now has experienced an all-engines-running-flat-out media firestorm. Perhaps the next one won’t seem as disorienting.

Any Dean slippage due to the flag furor was pretty much offset by his widely expected endorsement by the nation’s largest labor union, the Service Employees International Union. The union will delay its formal announcement that it is backing Dean until next week - at the request of a fellow union, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees.

If both SEIU and AFSCME back Dean, that will be his biggest win so far in his quest for the nomination.

Another sign of strength on Dean’s part: He seems on the verge of foregoing taxpayer funds for his campaign. Dean can do without the taxpayer subsidy and thus go over the $47 million limit imposed on candidates who do accept taxpayer funds. While he will be assailed by good government types who want complete compulsory taxpayer funding of candidates, Demo Derby suspects they are outnumbered by the Democrats who want to beat Bush at all costs.

As Howard Fineman argues, a Dean decision to opt out of the spending limit can have immediate benefits in enabling him to pound the daylights out of his Democratic rivals.

Gaining ground in this edition of Demo Derby: Edwards, who fired some populist shots at Dean over the flag flap — getting at Dean’s perceived elitism, which Edwards called “condescending.”

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“The last thing we need in the South is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need to do,” Edwards cracked.

Also edging forward a bit in Demo Derby is Sharpton. While he is still long way from being neck and neck with Dean in this race, it was Sharpton, along with Edwards, who got the most prominent play in the television coverage for confronting Dean in the flag furor.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark gained a bit of traction with a speech Thursday on Iraq. It had its share of rhetorical two-sidedness, with Clark vowing “to leave Iraq, but not abandon it,” but was ample in the policy-wonk details — supply line logistics, the need for Special Forces — that one would expect from the former general.

Neither gaining nor slipping in this edition of Demo Derby is Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri. We’d already factored in his failure to get the SEIU endorsement. But Demo Derby twitches in anticipation of Gephardt’s strategy: When will he open fire on Dean in Iowa TV ads? And what of the United Auto Workers backing in Iowa and in the crucial Feb. 7 Michigan primary?

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