Confederate Flag Takes Center Stage Once Again

Published: January 18, 2008

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The Republican presidential candidates on Thursday moved to appeal to different types of conservative voters before the South Carolina primary, with Mike Huckabee using colorful language to declare the Confederate flag a states’ rights issue and Senator John McCain embracing a supply-side tax cut proposal.

“You don’t like people from outside the state coming in and telling you what to do with your flag,” Mr. Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, told supporters in Myrtle Beach, according to The Associated Press.

“In fact,” he said, “if somebody came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we’d tell them what to do with the pole; that’s what we’d do.”

At a news conference on Thursday night, he said, “It is not an issue the president of the United States needs to weigh in on.” Mr. Huckabee, who did not say whether he considered it offensive to fly the Confederate battle flag, made his remarks as he toured the state with David Beasley, a former South Carolina governor, who had angered some conservatives by removing the flag from the Capitol dome in Columbia and displaying it elsewhere on the Capitol grounds.

And a radio advertisement paid for by an independent group used the flag issue to attack Mr. McCain, of Arizona, and praise Mr. Huckabee. “John McCain assaults our values,” it said. “Mike Huckabee understands the value of heritage.”

Mr. McCain unveiled a tax-cut plan here in Columbia with a speech that was designed to reassure voters worried about the economy as well as fiscal conservatives who have been wary of him ever since he initially opposed President Bush’s tax cuts. Many who voted Tuesday in the Michigan primary, which Mitt Romney won, listed economic anxieties as their top concern.

Campaigning with Jack F. Kemp, the former quarterback, congressman, vice-presidential nominee in 1996 and proponent of supply-side economics, Mr. McCain called for cutting the corporate tax rate to 25 percent from 35 percent — which Rudolph W. Giuliani has also called for — as well as making Mr. Bush’s tax cuts permanent, establishing a tax credit for research and development, and repealing the alternative minimum tax.

And Mr. McCain proclaimed himself a believer in the notion that cutting taxes increases revenue for the government by spurring economic growth. “Don’t listen to this siren song about cutting taxes,” Mr. McCain told supporters gathered here under a tent in a driving rain. “Every time in history we have raised taxes it has cut revenues. And is there anybody here that needs to have their taxes increased?”

The campaign did not put a dollar figure on the cost of the tax cut. Asked later how he would pay for it, Mr. McCain said that he would start by eliminating pork-barrel spending.

Mr. McCain also sounded a skeptical note about the short-term stimulus plans that are being weighed in Washington and by some Democratic candidates.

“My friends, you’re going to hear from the Democrats, Let’s pump $70 billion, let’s pump $80 billion, let’s do this, let’s do that,” he said. “My friends, remember who is going to pay that. It doesn’t come off a printing press. It comes out of your pockets.”

The Romney campaign questioned Mr. McCain’s plan, and continued their efforts to paint him as a Washington insider. “So after almost three decades spent on Capitol Hill and after joining with Democrats to vote against the Bush tax-relief plans not once but twice, Senator McCain all of a sudden wants to try and help the economy work?” asked Kevin Madden, a Romney spokesman.

And Mr. Romney, before leaving South Carolina for Nevada, seemed to leave the door open for sending out tax rebate checks to jump-start the economy. “I do believe it makes sense for Congress to take immediate action,” said Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, adding that he would release a plan soon.

Mr. Romney got into an unusually heated exchange with Glen Johnson, an Associated Press reporter, at a news conference at a Staples store in Columbia. Mr. Johnson challenged Mr. Romney when he asserted he did not have lobbyists running his campaign. Mr. Johnson cited Ronald C. Kaufman, a senior adviser who is a Washington lobbyist.

The two got into a testy back and forth, with Mr. Romney saying Mr. Kaufman was not “even in on the senior strategy meetings” of the campaign and angrily taking on the reporter.

The Confederate flag issue — while not as prominent as it was in 2000 — has continued to surface. Fred D. Thompson, the former Tennessee senator who is staking his campaign on a strong showing here, said at a debate in November that “for a great many Americans, it’s a symbol of racism” and added that he was “glad that people have made a decision not to display it as a prominent flag symbolic of something in a state capitol.”

Mr. McCain, who has cited his own equivocations on the issue in 2000 as one of his failures of political courage, was met at several stops by flag-waving protesters. Asked about the flag at an event on Wednesday in Spartanburg, Mr. McCain said, “My answer, sir, is that I could not be more proud that the overwhelming majority of the people of this state joined together taking that flag off the top of the….” And his answer was drowned out by the cheers of supporters.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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