The Confederate flag flying on South Carolina Statehouse grounds has proved a divisive issue in past presidential primaries, with some White House hopefuls supporting it and others suggesting it should be taken down.
But with three weeks left until the 2012 primary, it’s clear that the candidates are determined not to let the debate over taking down the flag take down their campaigns.
Unlike previous campaigns in 1996 and 2000, when Republican presidential hopefuls including John McCain saw their hopes in South Carolina dashed because of strong stances against the flag, candidates have largely avoided the issue this year.
While other states’ rights issues — such as Boeing’s clash with the National Labor Relations Board in Charleston and the Justice Department’s rejection of South Carolina’s Voter ID law — have been a major focus of campaigns in the Palmetto State, discussion of the Confederate flag has been tabled.
Only former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has addressed the issue thus far.
, a woman was met with a smattering of boos when she asked Gingrich for his thoughts on the flag.
While the GOP frontrunner was unequivocal in his response, he avoided taking a stand on whether flying the flag was right or wrong.
“It’s up to the people of South Carolina,” Gingrich said, resulting in rousing applause.
“I am unarguably opposed to segregation. I am unarguably opposed to slavery. … I also believe if you believe in the 10th Amendment, there is a lot of stuff local people need to argue out locally, and they don’t need other folks coming in and arguing it for them.”
For some South Carolinians, that argument was settled in 2000, when South Carolina Republicans and Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges reached a compromise that removed the flag from the top of the Statehouse dome and moved it to a monument in front of the Capitol.
But even that compromise was not enough for some ardent objectors to the flag, including the NAACP, which has boycotted South Carolina since 2000, and the NCAA, which will not hold major events in South Carolina because of the flag.
In July, Gov. Nikki Haley rejected NAACP President Benjamin Jealous’s call to have the flag taken down, saying, as Gingrich did, that the issue had been settled by the people of South Carolina.
“Many people were uncomfortable with that compromise, but it addressed a sensitive subject in a way that South Carolina as a whole could accept,” Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said. “We don’t expect people from outside of the state to understand that dynamic …”
SCGOP executive director Matt Moore agreed.
"South Carolina voters are more interested in jobs and the economy than in opening up old wounds," Moore said. "The flag issue was settled and it should remain that way."
While the economy remains the most important issue in the eyes of South Carolina voters, wading into a symbolic debate over the flag could prove toxic for candidates as they try to please voters from across the political spectrum.
“Nobody wants to touch that thing again,” Clemson professor Dave Woodard told The Hill in November. “It’s a lose-lose situation. You’re going to alienate somebody and politics is a game of addition, not subtraction.”
In 2008, Mitt Romney suggested that the flag shouldn’t be flown, but with a large percent of South Carolina Republicans in the anyone-but-Romney camp for 2012, he has avoided the issue completely this time around.
The former Massachusetts governor may have learned a lesson from Sen. McCain, who called the flag “a symbol of racism and slavery,” after his losing bid in 2000, but managed to recover and win the 2008 S.C. primary.
That year, McCain tried to avoid the issue, saying he agreed with the majority of South Carolinians who felt the flag should be taken down, but also telling reporters that he believed, “the issue had been resolved in the minds of the overwhelming majority of the people of South Carolina.”
While that may or may not be the case in 2012, it’s clear that the candidates would rather focus on states’ rights controversies over No Child Left Behind or the NLRB rather than let South Carolina’s debate about the flag make its way back to the national campaign trail.