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Story highlights

Gov. Haley gave many Republican presidential hopefuls cover to back removing the Confederate flag

GOP strategist: 'This is one of those moments where the right thing to say and do is so obvious'

CNN —  

All of a sudden, Republican presidential candidates found a position on the Confederate flag Monday.

In the days after the racially-motivated massacre of nine African-Americans at a church in Charleston, many of the GOP candidates tried to skirt the issue of the Confederate flag – calling for prayer, a time for grieving, and support for the families of the nine victims. In some cases, they chided reporters for bringing up “politics” at such a sensitive time.

But within seconds of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s statement that South Carolina should honor its heritage but remove the flag from state grounds – and her pledge to use her authority to force the legislature to deal with the issue this summer – the candidates dispensed with their maneuvering and articulated clearer positions on the flag.

Jeb Bush – who had originally noted that he sent the flag to a museum as governor of Florida, but had only vaguely called for South Carolinians to “do the right thing” – moved quickly to define what he thought that “right thing” was.

READ: First on CNN: Walmart to stop selling Confederate flag merchandise

Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Chris Christie and Scott Walker, had all insisted that the aftermath of the tragedy was a time to grieve, not to engage in a political debate. But on Monday afternoon, Walker tweeted that he was glad Haley was calling for removing the Confederate flag from state grounds: “I support her decision,” he tweeted. Kasich, Ohio’s governor, similarly said he shared Haley’s view that the flag “should come down.”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had staked out the politically safe route of calling for more debate, said Monday that removing the flag was “an act of healing and unity that allows us to find a shared purpose based on the values that unify us.” The next day, Rand Paul said in a radio interview with WRKO in Boston that he would vote to take down the flag were he a South Carolina legislator.

And Graham, the South Carolina Republican senator, who had called for more debate during an interview with CNN Friday, released a far more forceful statement Monday after appearing with Haley and many other state officials. The Confederate flag, he said, should be taken off the Capitol grounds to deal with the issue “once and for all” after the “horrific, racially motivated shooting.”

The outlier among the candidates on Monday was Marco Rubio, who stuck by his original position that removal of the Confederate flag was an issue for the “people of South Carolina.”

“I appreciate and respect (Haley’s) statement that ‘This is South Carolina’s statehouse, it is South Carolina’s historic moment, and this will be South Carolina’s decision,’” Rubio said in a statement. “I have no doubt that given how the people of South Carolina have dealt with this tragedy so far, they will continue to inspire the nation with their courage, compassion and unity.”

For the GOP candidates who wrestled with the issue over the past few days, the difficulty of staking out a position boiled down to this: How does a presidential candidate – aiming to alienate as few voters as possible – deal with the volatile stew of issues that campaigns are loathe to touch. This case set off simultaneous debates over racism, gun rights, and whether the Confederate flag can legitimately be couched as a “state’s rights” issues.

“This is an issue that has an exceedingly high number of threads in it. It involves race, it involves culture, it involves crime, it involves justice,” said Matthew Dowd, a former strategist for President George W. Bush. “And then you have politicians who are incredibly scared of their own shadow, because they are so afraid they are going to be jumped on by what I would call the ‘conserva-gensia’, who don’t necessarily represent real people – whether its someone on Fox News or Rush Limbaugh.”

In a news cycle keyed to rapid response, Dowd added that it’s very difficult for politicians “to really be thoughtful about an issue, as opposed to giving a microwaved answer.”

READ: Some Confederate flag manufacturers ask: Is it OK to make it?

Still, the killings in Charleston happened during a period when the Republican Party is straining to expand its appeal to minorities. Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist who advised George W. Bush and 2008 presidential nominee John McCain, said many of the candidates missed a clear chance to show leadership by quickly stating a bold position on an issue that resonates not only with African-Americans, but with voters of all races who were horrified by Wednesday’s shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

“A presidential candidate who seeks to be the nominee of the party of [President Abraham] Lincoln should be able to talk contextually and historically about this flag, about these issues, about what it once meant and what it means today,” Schmidt said. “This is one of those moments where the right thing to say and do is so obvious — and you watch, one by one by one by one, how the political calculations and maneuverings take place at the expense of doing the right thing,” Schmidt said.

He added: “This is something most people would regard as a pretty simple and easy thing to get right.”

The balance that many candidates were trying to strike, said Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to Bush, was in respecting the rights of South Carolinians to decide what to do with the flag.

“There’s a higher principle about the role of the federal government that runs into conflict with the raw emotions that play out after a tragedy and it squeezes Republicans,” Fleischer said. “They’re squeezed because the higher principle is Republican federal candidates place a lot of value in the right of states to decide these matters without federal interference – whether it’s an emotional issue like the flag, or whether it’s gun rights, gay marriage” – even nutrition standards, he said.

In a politically important state like South Carolina, which will hold one of the first presidential primaries, many voters see no need for out-of-state politicians to meddle in their affairs – as Haley obliquely stated during her press conference on Monday.

Fleischer said he disagreed with those who have framed the flag issue as a test of character. “The test of character is the ability to see long term, and to know what the role of the federal government is, and should be, while also creating an environment to actually solve the problem,” he said.

Still, many unaligned political strategists, watching the maneuverings of the last few days were puzzled by why it took so long for candidates to parse their positions.

Moments after the presidential candidates flooded Twitter with newly formed opinions about the Confederate flag following Haley’s press conference, Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party, tweeted incredulously: “A president can encourage a foreign country to tear down a wall, but a presidential candidate can’t encourage a state to take down a flag?”