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I'm not familiar with any sort of shortcuts like that, but you can manually edit /etc/X11/xorg.conf and replace the driver with "vesa". I've found this necessary a couple times when either the "nv" or "mga" driver the Debian 4.0 installer installed didn't work properly.
Maybe there are some shortcuts or tricks to do it the way you say, but I'm only familiar with the editing xorg.conf method (which works for any Linux distribution).
When the login prompt comes up, login as root, and at the # prompt, type ... dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg
In the course of that conversation, select the vesa driver. That'll probably get you a minimal Xsystem working, but it's not "safe mode." Safe mode is a Windows concept. I suppose Ubuntu or other Windows wannabee distros use the term to help newbies feel comfortable.
You are now dealing with Debian. Are you sure you're ready?
Boot up in single user mode. It should be the second option when the GRUB bootloader starts up. This gives you the option to log in as root before X attempts to start (as well as many other things). After you edit xorg.conf with a command like "pico /etc/X11/xorg.conf", then use the command "exit" to exit and the boot sequence will continue as normal.