Republicans on Sunday demurred when asked whether South Carolina should remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capitol, attempting to avoid a potential landmine in the first-in-the-south presidential contest.
Both presidential hopefuls and South Carolina leaders have been asked whether they believe the flag should be removed from the grounds in Columbia after a man inspired by racial hatred admitted to killing nine parishioners of an African-American church in Charleston earlier this week.
Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, two Republican presidential candidates courting the vote of social conservatives who play an outsized role in South Carolina, declined to voice their personal opinion on whether the flag should fly in Columbia, pegging it as a states’ rights issues that doesn’t rise to the Oval Office.
“It’s not an issue for someone running for president,” said Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas on NBC’s Meet the Press. “Everyone’s being baited with this question as if it has anything to do whatsoever with running for president.”
“I’m not a South Carolinian,” said Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, on ABC’s This Week. “This is a decision that needs to be made here in South Carolina.”
Other Republican contenders, from Ted Cruz to Marco Rubio, have adopted a similar position, saying in the immediate aftermath of the killings that they would not encourage South Carolina leaders to act one way or another.
That tone fits with their predilection to support states’ rights – but it also gives the aspirants a chance to largely avoid angering the endorsers who can give a jolt of energy ahead of the pivotal South Carolina primary next year.
But it may grow harder for the GOP to maintain their reticence. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, wrote a strongly worded tweet calling for South Carolinians to send the flag to a museum.
“Take down the #ConfederateFlag at the SC Capitol. To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred. Remove it now to honor #Charleston victims,” Romney tweeted.
Ben Carson, the sole African-American presidential candidate, said the flag wouldn’t have “made a difference” when it comes to preventing future tragedies, though he recognized “some things are inflammatory.”
“The Confederate flag causes a lot of people angst and they are not able to see beyond that,” Carson said on Fox News. “I think the people of South Carolina should sit down and have an intelligent discussion about what can they use that captures their heritage, captures the heritage of America and allows them to coexist in peace.”
Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, pledged Sunday to be a part of that debate. But Scott declined to reveal his position on whether to move the flag on CBS’s Face the Nation.
“For some, that flag represents that history. And for so many others, it represents a pain and oppression. I’m looking forward to our state leaders getting together, and having a robust conversation after the funerals about what’s the next step,” Scott said. “I am going to make sure that I’m a part of that conversation. My voice will be clear. My position will be stated.”