Thursday, April 20, 2000

Sen. John McCain, changing his stance from February’s Republican primaries, told a conservative think tank in Columbia, S.C., that the Confederate battle flag should be removed from the South Carolina Statehouse.

The Arizona Republican, speaking to about 70 people at the South Carolina Policy Council, said he had dissembled for political reasons when asked repeatedly about the issue in the campaign.

“I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary,” he said. “So I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth.”

The senator devoted about five minutes of his 20-minute speech to the flag.

“I believe the flag should be removed from your Capitol, and I am encouraged that fair-minded people on both sides of the issue are working hard to define an honorable compromise,” Mr. McCain said.

Both Mr. McCain and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, pressed before the primary to say what they thought about the flag, said that it was up to South Carolinians alone to decide.

Bush spokesman Scott McClellan reiterated that stance yesterday.

“Gov. Bush believes on principle that this is a state issue,” he told The Washington Times.

Mr. McCain’s reversal prompted Vice President Al Gore to urge Mr. Bush to do the same.

“Leadership is about standing up for what’s right, not for the far right,” Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said. “George W. Bush needs to tell the American people where he stands on the Confederate flag, up or down.”

Mr. Bush’s spokesman rejected such challenges as unprincipled electioneering.

“Al Gore visited South Carolina in previous years and said nothing about the flag until now, when he found it politically convenient for his presidential campaign,” Mr. McClellan said.

A similar charge against Mr. Gore came from another quarter yesterday former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley.

The Republican, who lost his 1998 re-election bid to Jim Hodges, recalled a furious bout of statewide racial strife in 1996 and 1997.

At that time, Mr. Beasley, who had promised not to remove the Confederate banner during his 1994 campaign, reversed course and called for the flag to be removed from the Statehouse. His stance gave him a prominence that prompted an invitation to Washington.

“I stood and talked to Mr. Gore, and not one time did he mention the flag in South Carolina,” Mr. Beasley said. “He knew about it. He just never mentioned it, never took a stand.”

“For him to now come out and say, ‘Where’s Mr. Bush?’ well, Gore had several chances to say something.”

The Democrat-controlled state Senate voted last week to move the flag from the Capitol’s dome to a nearby monument on the Statehouse grounds.

But the proposal will face opposition from both parties in the 124-member House. Republicans, who are in the majority in the House, generally want the flag to stay where it is, and many Democrats don’t even want the flag at the memorial.

Some were not so sure Mr. McCain’s appearance was a good thing.

“It was an issue that was being dealt with by South Carolinians,” said one state Republican leader, who asked not to be identified. “I’m not really sure what he is doing here.”

• Andrew Cain contributed to this report.

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