- Associated Press - Monday, February 29, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Several high-profile South Carolina supporters of Donald Trump say they’re still backing the billionaire businessman after a flap over his immediate refusal to denounce an implicit endorsement from a former Ku Klux Klan leader.

Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, former South Carolina Ports Authority chairman Bill Stern and former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer said Monday they are standing behind the Republican presidential front-runner even though he has been challenged on his recent reaction to questions about support from former KKK Grand Dragon David Duke and other white supremacists.

“From what I know of Donald Trump he would not seek an endorsement from a group like this or want to be associated with a David Duke,” Stern, now a commercial real estate developer in Columbia, told The Associated Press. “I have confidence in that.”

Last week, Duke told his radio followers a vote against Trump was equivalent to “treason to your heritage.”

Trump didn’t immediately - but did ultimately - distance himself from the support. Stern, the son of Holocaust survivors, said he and Trump have discussed at length the “need to stand up against racism and intolerance.”

Trump initially told reporters Friday he didn’t know anything about Duke’s statement, then curtly said: “All right, I disavow, OK?” Asked Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” whether he rejected the support, Trump said, “Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke. … I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists.”

Trump has since said he didn’t hear or understand the question. His Republican rivals have criticized him for not immediately disavowing the support. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and Gov. Nikki Haley, Republicans backing Marco Rubio, have said Trump can’t unite the party.

References to the KKK and symbols its supporters utilize strike a particular nerve in South Carolina, which last summer engaged in a heated debate over Confederate emblems following the deaths of nine black churchgoers at the hands of an alleged shooter who embraced the flag. Legislators ultimately voted to remove the flag from the Statehouse grounds.

McMaster, the highest-profile South Carolina official to back Trump, said that the businessman has never said anything that would lead him to believe that has any racist tendencies.

“The picture that is being presented … is not the picture of the man I have come to know,” McMaster said.

Andre Bauer, a Republican who served as South Carolina’s lieutenant governor for eight years and has endorsed Trump, said politicians are looking for support, wherever it comes from.

“Why wouldn’t anybody running for office want any vote they can get?” Bauer said. “Say David Duke does support him. He’s endorsed Donald Trump’s policy. That doesn’t mean Donald Trump is endorsing David Duke’s policy.”

___

Kinnard can be reached at https://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP . Read more of her work at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/meg-kinnard/


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