By John Whitesides, Political Correspondent
DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - The Democratic presidential contenders clashed sharply over race in the final debate before the Iowa caucuses on Sunday, with civil rights activist Al Sharpton challenging front-runner Howard Dean's record as Vermont governor.
Barely a week before the Jan. 19 caucuses kick off the Democratic contest for the White House, Dean conceded under questions from Sharpton that he did not have a black or Hispanic in his six-member Cabinet during more than 11 years as governor.
"If you want to lecture people on race, you ought to have the background and track record," said Sharpton, one of two black candidates in the presidential race along with former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun.
"I will take a back seat to no one in my commitment to civil rights," Dean said, pointing out he had the most endorsements from members of the black and Hispanic congressional delegations.
"I think you only need co-signers if your credit is bad," Sharpton responded.
Dean leads the nine-strong Democratic field vying for the right to challenge President Bush in polls despite relentless attacks from his rivals, who have accused him of making careless and conflicting statements and attacked his plan to repeal all of Bush's tax cuts.
Some Democrats also have questioned whether Dean, who holds a narrow lead in Iowa over Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt ahead of the caucuses, can expand his largely white support and bring blacks and Hispanics to the polls in November.
Dean's native Vermont is 96 percent white. Blacks make up only 2 percent of the population in Iowa.
Dean resurrected a line he first used during a September debate in Baltimore.
"If the percentage of African-Americans in your state was any indication of what your views on race were, then Trent Lott would be Martin Luther King," he said, referring to the Republican senator from Mississippi and the slain U.S. civil rights leader.
"BLOW UP A RACIAL DEBATE"
Braun went after Sharpton for attacking Dean, telling him "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?" she said.
Sharpton said he had heard Dean "lecture" the other Democrats on race throughout the campaign, adding: "I want him to be accountable since he brought up race. That's not racial hysteria; that is accountability."
The debate on Sunday, the 11th between the presidential contenders, was called the Iowa Black and Brown Forum and was designed to focus on racial issues.
A Reuters/MSNBC/Zogby poll released on Sunday showed Dean leading Gephardt 25-23 percent, with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in third place at 14 percent and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards fourth with 13 percent.
The debate followed a full day of campaigning for most of the candidates in Iowa, including a confrontation between Dean and a Republican supporter in the audience, Dale Ungerer.
Ungerer accused the Democrats of "tearing down your neighbor" and bashing Bush. "Please tone down the garbage," he told Dean.
Dean, whose temperament has been questioned by his rivals, began by calmly replying: "George Bush is not my neighbor." But when Ungerer tried to interrupt, Dean shouted: "You sit down. You had your say. Now I'm going to have my say."
During the debate, Dean said he would offer a tax relief plan for the middle class but it would kick in only after he had balanced the U.S. budget and developed a plan to increase corporate taxes.
Edwards, who said race was "the defining issue in America," earned the endorsement on Sunday of Iowa's biggest newspaper, the Des Moines Register, which called him "a cut above" the other candidates.