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Flag fight entangles McCain and Bush

It seems neither of the GOP hopefuls, nor many S.C. Republicans, are happy the issue has taken on such prominence.

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 16, 2000


COLUMBIA, S.C. -- A few blocks from the state Capitol where the Confederate flag still flies atop the dome, Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign shares an office with the group fighting efforts to bring it down.

McCain's close ties and space-sharing arrangement with the Southern Heritage Association might have gone unnoticed had the flag controversy not become an issue in the Feb. 19 South Carolina Republican presidential primary.

In recent days, however, both McCain and front-runner George W. Bush have been asked dozens of times on the campaign trail -- here and in other states -- to express support for one side or the other in South Carolina's flag dispute. Both have tried with limited success to steer clear of the controversy.

Likewise, political consultant Richard Quinn, a top McCain adviser who owns the office that serves as headquarters for both McCain and the pro-flag activists, said he has been asked by several journalists to explain the connection between the two. He credits the Bush camp with feeding information about it to the press to embarrass McCain.

Of course, McCain put himself in the thick of it by acknowledging last week that he shares the view of the pro-flag activists that the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of Southern heritage, not of racism. At the same time, McCain -- like Bush -- says the issue should be decided by South Carolinians.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the hottest topic in South Carolina politics today, a 140-year-old Confederate battle flag, would become a litmus test for candidates in the state's presidential primary, just as farm issues must be addressed by contenders in the Iowa caucuses and high taxes must be condemned in the New Hampshire primary.

Many South Carolinians -- not to mention the candidates -- are unhappy that the primary has provided a new battleground for the long-standing quarrel. Businesses fear debate between the presidential candidates on this issue will magnify the impact of the NAACP-backed boycott of South Carolina tourism. By some accounts, the boycott has cost the state about $50-million.

Potentially, the flag issue could also play a role in deciding the outcome of the primary if the race narrows. Bush, who leads here, is counting on a big victory in South Carolina to douse any momentum McCain might be building after a possible win in New Hampshire on Feb. 1.

While McCain's views on the flag do not sit well with some, especially his supporters in other parts of the country, they might improve his standing among pro-flag South Carolina Republicans. And most local politicos are betting that Bush, who also has pro-flag supporters, will not be able to maintain his neutrality.

Consultants set tone

As often happens in politics, the Bush and McCain campaigns in this state reflect the temperament of the local political consultants they have hired to run them.

Bush's campaign in the South is run by Warren Tompkins, 48, a Columbia native and former protege to the late GOP political Wunderkind Lee Atwater, who was credited with engineering President George Bush's 1988 victory. Before the younger Bush, Tompkins' most recent major client was the video poker industry.

As a result of Tompkins' impressive connections with the GOP establishment, Bush has been endorsed by most elected Republican officials in the state.

Bush's father and his mother, Barbara Bush, are also popular figures in South Carolina. Everyone here seems to remember fondly the night in January 1989, when President Bush and Atwater played electric guitars together on stage in Washington as part of the inaugural celebration. The former president and first lady are planning to campaign in this state for their son.

McCain's adviser, Quinn, is seen by many as the antithesis of Tompkins. Both are Republicans, but they have long been viewed as being in different camps.

An older, more traditional Southerner, Quinn, runs a conglomerate of small, politically oriented businesses out of his one-story office building near the Statehouse. They include a political consulting firm, a copying and direct mail service, the Southern Heritage Association, the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the magazine Southern Partisan.

Quinn's strategy for McCain, a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam, has been to put him in touch with a vast network of more than 400,000 military veterans in the state. In addition, Quinn engineered a few key endorsements for McCain from such popular state politicians as U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham, who made a reputation for himself during the Clinton impeachment.

Known as a GOP maverick, McCain also is trying to appeal to independents and cross-over Democrats. There is no Democratic primary Feb. 19, and all registered South Carolinians may vote in the GOP balloting. McCain's appeal among Democrats is reflected in a $1,000 contribution he received from the husband of one of the state's top Democrats, Education Secretary Inez Moore Tenenbaum.

Trey Walker, McCain's field director, said the Arizona Republican is trying to do what Ronald Reagan did in 1980 by drawing conservative Democrats into the GOP. Some of those conservative Democrats, no doubt, will be attracted by McCain's support for the Confederate flag.

While early polls showed Bush leading McCain by a substantial margin, electoral preferences are not expected to take firm shape until both contenders spend more time in South Carolina after the New Hampshire voting.

Boos for the questioner

The flag question was not raised in the South Carolina presidential primary campaign until Jan. 8, when all six GOP contenders met in West Columbia for a debate. Acting as questioner, MSNBC's Brian Williams angered the audience of 3,000 Republicans by asking Bush:

"Does the flag offend you personally?"

The booing grew so intense that some in the audience recall feeling scared. Although Bush instantly looked defensive, he was prepared with a response.

"I don't believe it's the role of someone from outside South Carolina and someone running for president to come into this state and tell the people of South Carolina what to do with their business when it comes to the flag."

But Williams was not finished. "As an American citizen, do you have a visceral reaction to seeing the Confederate flag?" he persisted.

The booing resumed, louder and more urgent.

"As an American citizen, I trust the people of South Carolina to make the decision," Bush said.

What angered the audience most was the knowledge that Williams' questioning was reinforcing a negative image of South Carolinians. It was particularly disappointing for state GOP leaders who had struggled to establish their primary as the second big one after New Hampshire -- a move intended to enhance the state's reputation.

State GOP Chairman Henry Dargan McMaster is fond of saying South Carolina's primary voters are more representative of the nation's Republicans than those in Iowa or New Hampshire. But the importance of the flag issue tends to undermine that notion.

"It's really unfortunate, considering all of the important issues that need to be discussed in the presidential campaign, that so much time is being taken up by talking about the flag," said Tompkins, Bush's campaign adviser.

McCain agreed with Bush during the debate that the flag issue should be decided only by South Carolinians. He later issued a statement that tried to appease both sides, but seemed more favorable to the pro-flag forces.

"Some view it as a symbol of slavery; others view it as a symbol of heritage," McCain's statement said. "Personally, I see the battle flag as a symbol of heritage."

Outsiders do not understand the Confederate flag controversy in South Carolina, according to many people interviewed here. While outsiders tend to share the NAACP's view that displaying the flag is a racist, pro-slavery statement, local whites insist they see it more as an expression of respect for the 60,000 South Carolinians who fought in the Civil War, of whom about 26,000 died.

"If this state doesn't have the decency to protect their memory, then we have lost our moral character," says state Sen. Glenna McConnell, a flag defender, McCain supporter and diehard Civil War re-enactor. "People view it as a symbol of Southern pride. It tells us about who we are and where we came from."

McConnell, a Republican from Charleston, acknowledges some of his allies harbor racist thoughts, but quickly adds that some African-American opponents of the flag are also racist -- meaning they are anti-white.

McConnell is among those politicians trying to help broker a compromise -- so far rejected by black legislators and the NAACP -- that would lower the Confederate flag from the dome and place it instead at a nearby Civil War memorial. Efforts to reach a compromise intensified after state Sen. Arthur Ravenel, R-Charleston, addressing a pro-flag rally Jan. 8, referred to the NAACP as the "National Association of Retarded Persons." Ravenel has since apologized to mentally retarded people.

Flag allies in both camps

Although Quinn's Southern Partisan is a magazine focusing primarily on Civil War history, it also has attempted to size up the presidential candidates. Not surprisingly, McCain is the only candidate to receive praise in the magazine. A recent article was entitled "Ten Reasons Why George W. Bush Won't Do."

Quinn also editorializes frequently on the flag issue. He recently wrote: "This is nothing less than a skirmish in the ongoing struggle to define a meaning of Southern history. Are our ancestors and historic symbols to return to some sense of dignity and worth? Or are those who fought the War Between the States to be redefined for the future as the moral equivalent of a bunch of Nazis rallying around the Swastika?"

Democratic state Sen. Darrell Jackson, an African-American leader of the anti-flag forces, said McCain has obviously been influenced by Quinn's views on this issue. Despite McCain's insistence that he is neutral in the dispute, Jackson says McCain has allied himself with Quinn and the pro-flag folks. "Saying it is a symbol of heritage is taking a side," said Jackson. "That's saying it's not about slavery."

But Quinn said it is wrong to assume McCain shares his views just because they are working together in this primary. "That's like saying Bush supports video poker because one of Warren Tompkins' clients is the video poker industry," Quinn said.

Walker, McCain's field director, notes that many Bush supporters, such as South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon, are also pro-flag.

"Bush's guy, Condon, is Mr. Flag," said Walker. "The McCain campaign is not a pro-flag organization. You cannot characterize the McCain campaign as pro-flag and the Bush campaign as anti-flag."

Bush's neutrality on the flag issue also is being tested in his home state. On Friday, the Texas NAACP asked him to support efforts to have the flag removed from a plaque on the state's Supreme Court building.

"We are not asking you to personally condemn the flag, but to say simply that it honestly offends a large segment of the population and therefore should not be used as an official public symbol, particularly in a location like our highest court . . . ," wrote Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP.

A Bush spokesman replied: "Texas is a diverse state and we are proud of our diversity and we certainly hope people are not trying to politicize this in the context of a presidential campaign."

Meanwhile, South Carolina's Democratic Party leaders, most of them anti-flag, are enjoying the dustup because they see it hurting both Bush and McCain as well as the Republican Party elsewhere around the country.

"McCain's position is disingenuous; Bush's position is disingenuous," said state Democratic Chairman Dick Harpootlian. Vice President Al Gore seized on the issue Saturday. Gore said the flag should be removed because it is a symbol of racism and that Bush is ducking the issue because he needs to preserve his conservative support.

"I think he, Gov. Bush, has avoided taking a position or has ducked the issue because he is playing to some of his supporters that I think have some pretty obsolete and even hateful attitudes," Gore told the Rev. Jesse Jackson on CNN's Both Sides With Jesse Jackson.

In another effort to paint Republicans as racist, Harpootlian is also supporting an effort by several black politicians to cancel the primary entirely on grounds that the GOP is not planning to open sufficient polling booths in black precincts. The Justice Department is reviewing the petition.

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