WASHINGTON – Republicans with presidential aspirations rushed Monday to embrace South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's call to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capitol, eager to move past a vexing issue that challenges the GOP's effort to win over the diverse coalition of voters it likely needs to win back the White House.
Haley gave her party's presidential candidates some much-desired political cover by calling for the banner's removal, reversing her own position and conceding that to many the flag is a "deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past."
Minutes later, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush tweeted out his agreement: "Kudos to @nikkihaley and all the SC leaders standing with her for doing the right thing." Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry did the same.
It was a sharp shift for the GOP's presidential class, which avoided taking such a firm position about the flag for several days following the slaying last week of nine black church members in Charleston. Walker was among the many who said it was a decision best left to those in South Carolina.
Republican leaders had hoped to avoid such a divisive issue this early in the campaign, and the GOP debate has to this point centered on foreign policy and the economy.
But eight months before the first presidential votes are cast, several events have forced the party to confront issues where the opinions of those conservatives who hold an outsized influence in the party's nomination process can be at odds with the young and minority voters it seeks to bring into the fold. The church shooting in South Carolina, a papal proclamation and a looming Supreme Court decision have put race, climate change and gay marriage onto the agenda.
Before last week's shooting at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, allegedly by a young white man who embraced the flag as a symbol of white supremacy, there was little suggestion it would again become an issue in presidential politics.
Polls taken as recently as last fall have found widespread support in the state for keeping the flag on the statehouse grounds, where it has flown since its removal from atop the capitol dome in 2000, and its most passionate backers have hounded from office those who sought to remove it.
"It's pretty obvious that the Republican candidates are, right now, trying to make sure they can connect with Republican primary voters," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, before Haley's Monday announcement.
That such a response is expected is part of the issue the GOP must face, said former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, who is African-American. He said most black voters have such low expectations of the GOP that they weren't surprised by the initially tentative responses of the party's most ambitious.
"People say, 'Yeah, figures.' They expect that to be the response," Steele said. "We're just gonna continue with crazy in the political spectrum? That to me is not leadership."
Steele and other party leaders say avoiding such issues poses a long-term problem for the party, which must find a way to expand its level of support among minority voters in a country that is growing increasingly diverse. The GOP draws the vast majority of its support from white voters, who by 2050 are expected to become a minority of the nation's population.
President Barack Obama captured 80 percent of the minority vote in 2012, boosting him to victory in crucial swing states such as Florida, Colorado, Virginia and Nevada.
In the wake of the shooting, there was no such hesitation to talk about race by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has already made it a major part of her campaign, taking strong stances on criminal justice reform and voting restrictions that disproportionally affect minorities and decrying the pervasiveness of "institutional racism."
Clinton spoke about race and the Charleston shooting over the weekend, and she plans to address a community meeting Tuesday at a church just miles from Ferguson, Missouri, the site of racially charged riots earlier this year. She called for the flag's removal in 2007.
The debate is the latest issue to test the willingness of the GOP's presidential candidates to break with their party's right wing.
Pope Francis last week issued a dire warning about the consequences of climate change, especially for poor and underdeveloped nations. Many conservatives dismiss the theory of manmade climate change and see efforts to combat it as an assault on the nation's economic self-interest. None of the Republican presidential contenders, a field that includes several Catholics, agreed with the Pope's assessment.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is expected to rule in the next week or so on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. While many conservative Republicans, especially among its base of evangelical voters, aggressively oppose same-sex marriage, a growing number of younger voters in both parties, as well as independents, support it. None of the party's 2016 candidates has expressed support of same-sex marriage.
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus was among those standing in the pack of supporters with Haley as she called for the flag to come down. But J.C. Watts, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, said despite the recent efforts by the RNC to focus on outreach to minority voters, his party has a lot of work left to do.
"I don't think you lay a couple of bricks and say the house has been built," said Watts, who is black. "That flag not being in a museum, it teaches a sermon before they ever say a word."
Associated Press writers Emily Swanson, Ken Thomas and Julie Bykowicz contributed to this report.
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