WASHINGTON — The Confederate battle flag in South Carolina again flies over a Republican presidential race, this time in the shadow of mass murder.
Amid renewed calls for removal of the flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State House — a response to the racist killings in Charleston — GOP presidential candidates generally expressed sympathy to the families while saying the final decision about the flag should be made at the local level.
"In Florida we acted, moving the flag from the state grounds to a museum where it belonged," said former Florida governor Jeb Bush over the weekend.
Noting it is a "sensitive" time in the state right now, Bush said: "Following a period of mourning there will rightly be a discussion among leaders in the state about how South Carolina should move forward, and I'm confident they will do the right thing."
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who described the killings themselves as acts of "racism" and "pure evil," did not take a position on the flag, saying people should hold off on policy pronouncements until after the funerals of the victims. "I think they're going to have a good healthy debate — and should have that debate — in South Carolina amongst officials at the state level," Walker said.
The Confederate battle flag is more than an academic exercise in South Carolina, which traditionally hosts the first southern primary in the presidential race every four years. Many conservatives who vote in GOP primaries support the flag, calling it a symbol of the state's heritage.
During a bruising primary in 2000 — a time when the flag flew above the Capitol dome — George W. Bush and John McCain both said decisions about it should be made by local residents. Two months after losing the primary to Bush, McCain apologized for not opposing the flag.
Later that same year, South Carolina lawmakers removed the flag from the dome and put it elsewhere on the State House grounds, where it remains a source of contention.
The flag issue surfaced again in 2008, when McCain won the South Carolina primary and eventually the Republican nomination. Among his opponents that year: Mitt Romney, who said at the time that the Confederate flag "shouldn't be flown … that's not a flag I recognize."
Romney, the GOP nominee in 2012, triggered the latest round of GOP questions with a Saturday tweet inspired by the killings in Charleston: "Take down the #ConfederateFlag at the SC Capitol. To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred. Remove it now to honor #Charleston victims."
President Obama seconded the notion, tweeting "Good point, Mitt."
Among the current Republican candidates, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said the people of South Carolina — not "a bunch of outsiders" — should make the decision on the flag. He noted, "they have found a bipartisan consensus over a decade ago on moving that flag to a new location and I have confidence in their ability to deal with that issue again."
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., told The Washington Post that he understands "the passions that this debate evokes on both sides" of the flag issue.
"Both those who see a history of racial oppression and a history of slavery, which is the original sin of our nation, and we fought a bloody civil war to expunge that sin," Cruz told the Post. "But I also understand those who want to remember the sacrifices of their ancestors and the traditions of their states, not the racial oppression, but the historical traditions, and I think often this issue is used as a wedge to try to divide people."
Other Republicans have also been called upon to respond to the latest Confederate flag flap:
— Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, on NBC's Meet The Press: "I still think it's not an issue for a person running for president … Everyone's being baited with this question as if somehow that has anything to do whatsoever with running for president;" Huckabee described the killer as a "lunatic racist."
— Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, speaking on ABC's This Week: "I take the position that the federal government really has no role in determining what the states are going to do … I'm not a South Carolinian."
— Businesswoman Carly Fiorina, speaking to reporters at a faith and freedom forum, called the flag a "symbol of racial hatred," but added that her "personal opinion is not what's relevant here."
— Ohio Gov. John Kasich said "it is "up to the people of South Carolina to decide, but if I were a citizen of South Carolina I'd be for taking it down."
The one South Carolinian in the race — Sen. Lindsey Graham — defended the placement of the Confederate flag, saying it is "part of who we are" and cannot be blamed for the actions of a deranged killer.
"It's him," Graham told CNN. "Not the flag."