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Confederate battle flag causes agita in Republican race

The Confederate battle emblem, which flies on the grounds of South Carolina's statehouse, has become a touchy issue in the Republican race for president since Wednesday's mass killing of worshipers at a historic black church in Charleston.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) helped her party's presidential candidates out of a jam Monday, calling for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds in Columbia.

The banner had been casting a shadow on the campaign since  the mass murder of nine worshippers during Bible study at the historically African American Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last week. A young white man who had expressed racist views is charged with the crime.

The candidates had been treating the flag as if it were nitroglycerin - no suprise, as they seek to minorities while also energizing the conservative white voters that dominate its base.

The battle flag is revered as a symbol of southern heritage by many whites. Others, black and white, see it as a reminder of a racist regime, the Confederacy, built on slavery. Southern opponents of civil rights in the 1960s embraced the flag, as have some supremacist groups.

Mitt Romney, the 2012 nominee, put the candidates on the spot by calling for the removal of the flag; he said it was a "symbol of racial hatred."

Most of the rest deflected the question at first, but Haley's action gave political cover.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who had declined to discuss his view of the controversy, tweeted Monday that he agreed with Haley.

The flag flew over the South Carolina Capitol dome from 1962 until 2000, when a deal among the state's leaders moved it to a Civil War memorial on the grounds. South Carolina holds the first primary in the South, and most candidates have steered clear of criticizing it – with the exception of Romney, who in 2008 was alone among Republicans opposing display of the Confederate emblem.

John McCain, who was battling George W. Bush for the nomination in 2000, supported the compromise move of the flag to the memorial. After he lost, however, McCain said in a speech that he had made a mistake; he wished he'd had the guts to oppose it.

Other reactions so far:

"In Florida we acted, moving the flag from the state grounds to a museum where it belonged," former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said on Facebook over the weekend.

Noting it is a "sensitive" time in the state right now, Bush said: "Following a period of mourning there will rightly be a discussion among leaders in the state about how South Carolina should move forward, and I'm confident they will do the right thing." He did not spell out what the right thing would be.

"I take the position that the federal government really has no role in determining what the states are going to do," former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said on ABC's This Week Sunday.

"The federal government or federal candidates should be making decisions on everything and — and opining on everything," Santorum replied. "This is a decision that needs to be made here in South Carol

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also has taken a states-rights view.

"If the state government of South Carolina wishes to address an issue in their state, that's fine," Huckabee said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. "If you can point me to an article and section of the Constitution in which a United States president ought to weigh in on what states use as symbols, then please refresh my memory on that," Huckabee said. "But for those of us running for president everyone's being baited with this question, as if somehow that has anything to do whatsoever with running for president. And my position is, it most certainly does not."

On Saturday, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, said the flag issue was South Carolina's to decide, "but if I were a citizen of South Carolina I'd be for taking it down.''He put out a statement Monday praising Haley.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Monday in a statement that "removing the flag is an act of healing and unity, that allows us to find a shared purpose based on the values that unify us. May God continue to be with the families of the victims in Charleston, and the great people of South Carolina."