Can The South Carolina GOP Get Rid Of Its Confederate Ghosts? : It's All Politics Many Republican voters didn't necessarily agree with the decision to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state Capitol. They're now worried it could mean the removal of more memorials.
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Can The South Carolina GOP Get Rid Of Its Confederate Ghosts?

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Can The South Carolina GOP Get Rid Of Its Confederate Ghosts?

Can The South Carolina GOP Get Rid Of Its Confederate Ghosts?

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Confederate flag flying on South Carolina's Statehouse grounds was always a political lightning rod, especially for Republican presidential candidates visiting the state. Worried about votes, GOP candidates usually danced a fine line, or they avoided the issue altogether. Now, as NPR's Jessica Taylor reports, Republican state leaders hope the flag's removal means the controversy around it will not be an issue in this presidential campaign.

JESSICA TAYLOR, BYLINE: On a recent trip to South Carolina, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker did not want to talk about the Confederate flag. Speaking to reporters, he simply praised Governor Nikki Haley for a bipartisan push to take it down.

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SCOTT WALKER: That's why it was important for her to be able to lead and to lead the people from South Carolina and not have other people drive that from outside but to let her lead first.

TAYLOR: Jeb Bush was more blunt. Last month, he pointed out that he had lowered the Confederate flag in Florida as governor. Bush praised Haley and other Republicans who called for its removal after the murder of nine African-Americans at a Charleston church.

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GEORGE H. W. BUSH: The symbols were - are racist.

TAYLOR: The Confederate flag has long been a divisive issue in South Carolina's GOP presidential primary. In 2000, the state's lawmakers reached a compromise to remove the flag from the top of the Capitol dome and put it in front of the Statehouse instead. In that year's presidential primary, Arizona Senator John McCain personally opposed the flag. But fearing political repercussions, he said keeping the flag should be a state decision. McCain lost the South Carolina primary, and his campaign never recovered. In 2008, he said he regretted it.

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JOHN MCCAIN: I knew that it was a symbol that was very offensive to many people. And afterwards, I went back and apologized. But by saying that I wouldn't have anything to do with an issue like that was an act of cowardice.

TAYLOR: This year's Republican presidential hopefuls now have the luxury of avoiding the issue. They're probably breathing a sigh of relief, says Danielle Vinson, a professor of political science at Furman University in Greenville.

DANIELLE VINSON: I think if you're a presidential candidate, you've got to be eternally grateful that this thing is down because it should not have to haunt them in years in the future.

TAYLOR: But at Walker campaign events last week, many South Carolina Republicans still weren't happy with the resolution. At a Harley-Davidson dealership in North Charleston, Paul Jordan thought the deal reeked of political correctness.

PAUL JORDAN: I don't think they should have taken it down. I think it's a symbol of states' rights. You know, I think that's an important issue that's being trampled today.

TAYLOR: Mike Bean, another voter, agreed the flag should have stayed. He worried it could mean other Confederate memorials are removed next.

MIKE BEAN: You open the door to one thing that's offensive to somebody, then you open - now all the doors are open to other people. So where does it end?

TAYLOR: Sam Kirton stood at an event wearing a, don't tread on me, button. He said the legislature did the right thing but also worried about the precedent it sets.

SAM KIRTON: Well, I think - I think the flag should have come down off of there. But I think that's it. We don't want to go out there and start taking statues down.

TAYLOR: The Statehouse speaker has said the legislature won't try to remove other public Civil War memorials and monuments. If a push to change those memorials does somehow become a flashpoint in the GOP primary, Vinson, the political scientist, said candidates have a new license to steer clear of the issue.

VINSON: Even those that think it might be an issue that they'd want to tackle probably can sidestep it by saying, it's a state decision.

TAYLOR: South Carolina Republicans and presidential candidates hope the same Confederate ghost won't haunt them again. Jessica Taylor, NPR News.

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