COLUMBIA, S.C. - Seven years after the Confederate flag was moved from South Carolina's Statehouse dome, it still shadows visiting presidential candidates.
The banner - a symbol of Southern pride to some and racism to others - continues to fly near the Capitol, just feet from one of this city's busiest streets. Supporters planned to have a plane fly it over Darlington Raceway during the state's NASCAR race this weekend.
But the rebel banner no longer draws the same level of protest that turned out thousands when it flew atop the dome and, despite a continuing boycott by the NAACP and a recent call for its removal by a popular college football coach, the flag has ceased to drive serious debate in the legislature below.
Still, it's never more visible to the rest of the nation than every four years when White House hopefuls troop through this early primary state and field questions about the flag.
Candidates typically arrive with similar, scripted answers that only vary depending on their party affiliation.
During the first Democratic candidates' debate held last month in Orangeburg, Sen. Barack Obama said the flag belonged in a museum. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has said it should be taken down, and Sen. Joe Biden and Sen. Chris Dodd both attended this year's NAACP King Day at the Dome rally in January, an annual event aimed at the flag's removal.
Republicans, who will gather here Tuesday for a debate, typically echo the statement that earned George Bush cheers in 2000 before he won the state's primary en route to the White House. "I believe the people of South Carolina can figure out what to do with this flag issue," Bush said.
During a campaign stop last month, Rudy Giuliani called it a "state issue," saying, "the state made a decision about the flag and another state may make a different decision about the flag."
That's the language Republicans should expect to hear, said state Sen. John Courson, a Columbia Republican and flag supporter. "I'm not sure it's an issue in South Carolina any more."
For the more ardent supporters and detractors of the flag, though, the issue still runs deep.
Last month, University of South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier surprised an awards ceremony when he railed in public against the flag. He said if "anybody were ever to ask me about that damn Confederate flag, I would say we need to get rid of it."
Lonnie Randolph, chairman of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, likens the Republican responses to those given by people who once defended segregation.
"It is worth observing and mentioning that the Republican Party and all the candidates have chosen to adopt the states' rights posture, which we know where that comes from, and the Democratic Party and its candidates have adopted a more humane posture," Randolph said.
While the NAACP launched a boycott of the state's tourism industry in 2000 to force the flag's removal, state officials say the economic impact has not been large enough to measure.
Until recently, officials with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a pro-flag group organizing the NASCAR flyover, were targeting Arizona Sen. John McCain for statements he made about the banner after his 2000 loss to Bush.
While McCain echoed the then-Texas governor during their debate, he later said he had not been honest about his feelings and his ancestors who fought for the Confederacy "fought on the wrong side of American history."
When he formally launched his campaign in South Carolina last month, the Confederate heritage group picketed McCain's Columbia stop at a flour mill. "John McCain speaks with a forked tongue," said Don Gordon, chairman of the group's South Carolina heritage defense committee.
But McCain will be left alone during Tuesday's nationally televised debate and there will be no picketing during the week's GOP events. "I have requested the troops stay home," Gordon said.
Gordon said McCain and the rest of the candidates are saying the right things about the flag. "It's a state issue; not a federal issue. We're definitely satisfied," Gordon said.
Francis Marion University political scientist Neal Thigpen said while McCain created problems for himself in 2000, this time, "it probably won't cost anybody all that many votes here."comments powered by Disqus