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Republicans tread carefully as Confederate battle flag is challenged

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WASHINGTON » The massacre of nine African-Americans in a storied Charleston, South Carolina, church last week, which thrust the issues of race relations and gun rights into the center of the 2016 presidential campaign, has added another familiar and divisive question in the emerging contest for the Republican nomination: what to do with the Confederate battle flag that flies on the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol.

And like some of their predecessors seeking to win the state’s primary, the first in the South, the leading Republican candidates for 2016 are treading delicately. They do not want to risk offending the conservative white voters who venerate the most recognizable emblem of the Confederacy, saying it is a symbol of their heritage.

Jeb Bush issued a statement Saturday saying he was confident that South Carolina "will do the right thing." As Florida’s governor, Bush in 2001 ordered the Confederate battle flag to be taken from its display outside his state’s Capitol "to a museum where it belonged."

Sen. Marco Rubio, also of Florida, told reporters he thought the state would "make the right choice for the people of South Carolina."

But neither candidate would state explicitly whether he wanted South Carolina to stop the state-sanctioned display of a flag that is a particularly searing reminder of slavery.

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin begged off from questions about what to do with the flag in South Carolina or whether it represents racism, saying he would not address any such matters until the victims of the mass shooting were buried.

Even after online pictures of the suspect in the massacre, Dylann Roof, holding the Confederate battle flag and a gun surfaced Saturday, none of the candidates who appeared on Sunday’s political television programs were willing to say flatly whether it should continue to fly at the South Carolina Capitol. The most prominent Democratic contender, Hillary Rodham Clinton, said in 2007 that the flag should be removed.

The carefully calibrated answers were a vivid illustration of the difficulties Republicans face in attempting to broaden their party’s appeal to minorities while also energizing those white conservatives.

"The politics of race rests at the most sensitive nerve of the GOP," said Bruce Haynes, a Republican strategist and South Carolina native. "All Republicans want to grow their share of the black vote. But it’s the chicken and the egg."

Haynes recalled the example of former Gov. David Beasley of South Carolina, a Republican who called for the flag to be removed from atop the Capitol dome, where it once flew, and positioned on the grounds instead. Beasley’s move won him little black support and a backlash from some whites in his losing bid for re-election in 1998.

But while the Republican presidential hopefuls are now mostly focused on a heavily white electorate for the primaries and caucuses, an increasingly diverse country looms for the eventual nominee.

Not until three days after it was reported that a young white gunman expressing hostility toward blacks had killed nine worshippers at Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, including Clementa Pinckney, a pastor and state senator, did the Republican presidential campaign fully catch up to a country reeling from the gruesome display of racial hatred.

In the days before, some of the Republican candidates complained about President Barack Obama’s calls for additional gun laws, and others seemed uncertain whether to deem the massacre racially motivated. If the Republicans were reluctant to call directly for the flag to come down, they realized that they had to speak more plainly about the racial motivation behind the attack.

After Friday, when Bush initially seemed reluctant whether to ascribe the killings to race, his rivals were blunt on the question.

"I want to make it abundantly clear that I think the act, the crime that was committed on Wednesday is an act of racism," Walker told reporters Saturday after he gave a speech to an evangelical group in Washington.

Rubio called the massacre "an act motivated by racial hatred."

The one high-profile Republican who spoke unambiguously about the flag is no longer running for president. Mitt Romney said in a Twitter message Saturday, "Remove it now to honor Charleston victims."

Romney took a similar position when he ran in South Carolina’s primary in 2008. But Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas who was the runner-up in that contest and is a candidate again in 2016, suggested at the time that no one from outside the state should dictate what South Carolina did with the flag. That position, which Huckabee reiterated Sunday on NBC’s "Meet the Press," is similar to the posture both George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain took in the 2000 nominating race, which Bush won.

Not long after McCain dropped out of that campaign, he returned to Columbia, South Carolina, to admit that he had compromised his principles because he was scared of losing. He later wrote in a book that it was one of the worst decisions in his career not to have called for the flag’s removal.

Yet McCain and Romney, the previous two Republican nominees, are viewed warily by many conservatives, and their opinions are likely to matter little to the current field.

What may mean more are the views of South Carolina’s Republican leaders, some of whom were saying Saturday that they appreciated the willingness of the candidates to give them space to address the matter.

One Republican legislator is already pushing to take it down. State Rep. Norman D. Brannon, who represents a conservative district upstate and was a friend of Pinckney’s, said he would file a bill in the next session of the Legislature to remove the flag from the Capitol grounds.

"The flag is kind of like algae in a lake," he said in an interview. "It’s just barely under the surface, everybody knows it’s there, but unless something like this happens nobody talks about it."

Brannon spoke bluntly about the effect of the killings on him.

"What lit the fire under this was the tragic death of my friend and his eight parishioners," Brannon said. "It took my buddy’s death to get me to do this. I should feel ashamed of myself."

He said the presidential candidates should not mince words on the issue.

The fight over the flag’s placement has a long history in South Carolina. It was originally placed atop the Capitol during the administration of Gov. Fritz Hollings, a Democrat, in 1962 as the civil rights movement gained steam, ostensibly to mark the centennial of the Civil War.

There was a push in the late 1990s to take it down, but the flag continued to fly above South Carolina’s copper-domed Capitol until 2000, when a bipartisan agreement was reached to move it to a Confederate memorial nearby.

"That compromise was widely accepted," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a presidential hopeful "But in light of what has happened, that has to be revisited because the shooter is so associated with the flag."

In an interview on CNN on Sunday, Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. of Charleston, a Democrat, said displaying the flag at the Capitol "sends, at best, mixed messages."

"And, at worst," he added, "for hateful people like Roof, it’s an affirmation because they have appropriated something and used it as a symbol of hatred. "So I think that it needs to go into a museum and I think it will.

What could prove crucial in determining the flag’s fate, and whether the Republican presidential candidates will speak more decisively, is the view of Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only African-American Republican in the Senate. Scott said Sunday on CBS’ "Face the Nation" that after a period of mourning, his "voice will be clear" on the flag issue.

Unless Gov. Nikki Haley calls the Legislature back into a special session, the state will most likely take up the issue when the next session begins in January – shortly before South Carolina’s presidential primary.

But many prominent Republicans there are privately hoping the state reaches a consensus well before that point to avert a primary dominated by race-related issues that could turn off the business community and depress the state’s lucrative tourism and convention industry.

David H. Wilkins, a Republican former speaker of the state House who played a critical role in brokering the compromise to take the flag off the Capitol dome, said corporate executives would start a dialogue about the flag.

"I’m hearing already that many chambers of commerce around the state are planning to discuss the issue," he said, predicting "a meaningful discussion after people have had a chance to grieve and heal."

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