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Candidates Seek To Avoid Flag Issue

January 7, 2000

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) _ A huge, three-day Confederate rally and re-enactment began here today _ the same day Republican presidential candidates were coming to South Carolina to debate.

Mere coincidence, the rally’s organizers said.

But it’s one very touchy issue for visiting candidates.

In this state, where some call the early Republican primary the ``Gateway to the South,″ a bitter argument over the Confederate flag flying above the Statehouse is no minor local issue.

Heritage Coalition Chairman Chris Sullivan, one of the rally’s organizers, said it certainly would sway how he votes in the Feb. 19 primary.

``If a candidate for president were to decide he was against what the flag represents, that would certainly have an impact on my decision,″ he said. ``I think a lot of people would share that view.″

The Republican candidates debate tonight in West Columbia, a day after they faced off in Durham, N.H.

The Confederate rally started this morning at the Statehouse with a reading of the names of 18,600 soldiers ``who died defending South Carolina from invasion,″ accompanied by the ringing of a bell. The original plan was to read the names of 26,000 soldiers, but the Rev. Bobby Eubanks, a spokesman for the Heritage Coalition, said only the smaller number was available.

Supporters say the flag stands for defiant defense of freedom and Southern heritage. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sees a symbol of slavery and has called for a tourism boycott of the state.

The Republican candidates, have done their best to avoid the issue _ though not always successfully.

Publisher Steve Forbes said it was a local matter. So did Texas Gov. George W. Bush _ but in a way that stirred things up.

Arizona Sen. John McCain said, ``To me personally, I understand how it could be offensive to some people, but I had ancestors who fought in the Confederate Army and I thought they fought honorably.″

McCain also said he had resented it when the NAACP announced a boycott of his state to pressure officials to approve a holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Bush, pressed this summer about the South Carolina tourism boycott, said, ``My advice is for people who don’t live in South Carolina to butt out of the issue.″

The NAACP suggested Bush follow his own advice.

``Your comments may even be seen as a thinly veiled attempt to gain votes in South Carolina by attacking the NAACP and this issue,″ James Gallman, South Carolina NAACP president, wrote to Bush. ``In reality, you are the outsider.″

Back home, the Texas NAACP wants Bush to push for legislation banning the flag from public institutions there following a controversy at high school that uses the flag and a Rebel mascot.

It’s a no-win situation for Bush, who is trying to broaden his appeal to minorities with his ``compassionate conservative″ message but can’t alienate conservatives backing the flag, said Earl Black, a Rice University political scientist who specializes in Southern politics and who used to live in South Carolina.

``Politicians are really reluctant to intervene in local disputes,″ Black said. ``It has an effect of dividing supporters without normally winning new supporters.″

And what about the Democrats?

Vice President Al Gore, who is pursuing the Democratic presidential nomination, ``supports the right of the people of South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag,″ said spokeswoman Laura Quinn.

``I wouldn’t fly it,″ said his opponent, Bill Bradley. ``I think that it sometimes offends a large part of the population.″

Patrick Buchanan, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the Southerners ``ought to be respected and so should the flag under which they fought and died.″

South Carolina raised the Confederate flag over its Statehouse in 1962 to commemorate the Civil War’s centennial and is the only state that has kept it flying.

Georgia and Mississippi incorporate the Confederate symbol in their state flags. The state Supreme Court has resurrected a 6-year-old challenge by the NAACP to change that in Mississippi. Attempts to change Georgia’s flag have failed in the Legislature.

In 1995, South Carolina legislators gave themselves sole power to remove the flag after then-Gov. David Beasley and the state Chamber of Commerce tried to bring it down. Beasley later said the flag issue contributed to his defeat in 1998.

Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges has met privately with both sides in an effort to fashion a compromise, but the GOP-controlled House has the votes to keep the flag flying.

Update hourly