Friday, January 18, 2008

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The Confederate battle flag — an issue that has confounded politicians in South Carolina for more than a decade — is back again, this time in the form of radio ads attacking Republican presidential candidates Sen. John McCain and Mitt Romney for criticizing the flag.

Paid for by Americans for the Preservation of American Culture, the ads also single out rival Republican Mike Huckabee for praise, saying the former Arkansas governor defended the flag as a state and heritage issue. They began running yesterday.

“Mitt Romney’s been trying, but when it comes to bashing the Confederate flag, he can’t hold a candle to John McCain. McCain’s been doing it — calling the flag a racist symbol — for years,” one of the minutelong ads says.

Another ad goes straight for Mr. Romney, with the announcer saying, “Romney let fly in a CNN debate, saying ‘that flag shouldn’t be flown’ and ‘that’s not a flag I recognize.’ ”

Ron Wilson, a former national commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and a South Carolinian who was involved in raising money for the ads, said they will be run through Saturday’s primary on every radio station in the state that carries the radio shows of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly.

He wouldn’t say how big the ad buy was, only that he has been told the commercials will reach 60 percent to 65 percent of all Republican primary voters.

In his 2000 presidential bid, Mr. McCain, of Arizona, seemed to straddle the issue, first calling the flag “a symbol of racism and slavery” but then releasing a statement saying he understood both sides.

“Some view it as a symbol of slavery; others view it as a symbol of heritage. Personally, I see the battle flag as a symbol of heritage,” Mr. McCain said.

Candidate George W. Bush, meanwhile, said it was up to the people of the state to decide, an acceptable stance to pro-flag groups at the time.

In his new book released last year, “Hard Call: Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them,” Mr. McCain labeled his support for the flag one of the “worst decisions” he ever made.

Some voters don’t want to let him drop the issue. Mr. McCain has been dogged by flag supporters at many of his events here, including yesterday’s rally outside his Columbia headquarters.

“I just think anybody that’s attacked the Confederate flag has attacked my ancestry and the South,” said James Green, 58, as he marched outside the rally holding a sign that read “The South does not want John McCain.”

Neither Mr. Romney’s campaign nor Mr. McCain’s responded to requests for comment yesterday.

But when asked by a voter Wednesday about holding a position at odds with a majority of state residents, who support flying the flag, Mr. McCain said the issue is over.

“My answer to that is I can’t be more proud of the overwhelming majority of the people of this state who came together in taking that flag off the top of the Capitol,” Mr. McCain said, earning a standing ovation, according to CBS News.

As for Mr. Romney, Mr. Wilson said that the former Massachusetts governor’s comments at the CNN/YouTube debate were bad, but that what really upset Confederate battle-flag supporters was that a Web site from South Carolina supporters of Mr. Romney also attacked the Sons of Confederate Veterans group itself.

“He actually attacks the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which is the first time that’s ever been done,” Mr. Wilson said.

Mr. Wilson said presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul of Texas is good on this issue from his standpoint, while candidate Fred Thompson is a mixed bag.

He said Mr. Thompson’s answer at the CNN-YouTube debate was troublesome. Mr. Thompson, a former senator from Tennessee, said that the flag isn’t necessarily racist but that he supported the state’s decision to limit its display on public property. His campaign called later to try to smooth over the issue. Mr. Wilson said they decided not to run ads against Mr. Thompson, for now, because they don’t see him as a major player here.

Mr. Wilson said as much as 8 percent of the primary electorate could consider the battle flag a voting issue: “This is close enough now that this issue is probably going to determine whether McCain wins or Huckabee.”

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